The commissioner of the agency that oversees Texas foster children apologized to lawmakers today for failing to inform them of a 2008 “fight club” involving developmentally disabled girls at a Houston-area facility. But she said the Department of Family and Protective Services is moving quickly to address abuse and neglect inside Daystar Residential Inc., as well as the 60 other residential treatment centers on state contracts to care for the state's most troubled children. And she said the agency must work with lawmakers to overhaul the entire foster care system, to emphasize keeping kids in one stable environment — with their siblings and close to home.
“You have every right to be frustrated when you get caught by surprise,” Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein told concerned lawmakers on the House Human Services Committee this morning, at a hearing called after a joint investigation by The Texas Tribune/Houston Chronicle reported hundreds of abuse and neglect incidents in the last two years. “We work very hard to keep legislators informed. On this one, we didn’t rise to the standard we should have.”
In the fight club incident, Daystar employees forced developmentally disabled girls to fight one another, rewarding the winners with snacks. At that facility, Heiligenstein said, DFPS has suspended new admissions, installed an intensive monitoring system and increased unannounced inspections, including nights and weekends.
But she said the agency is addressing the problems uncovered at Daystar at all of its residential treatment centers. Officials have called for enforcement team conferences at all RTCs, are requiring unannounced inspections within 30 days of a reported incident and are drafting better protocols for interviews with facility children and staffers. They’ve increased the time that they store notifications of abuse or neglect that they send to local law enforcement, so they can later prove they've sent them.
Meanwhile, they are proposing requiring RTC workers to report suspected abuse or neglect directly to DFPS — instead of just to a facility supervisor or administrator, a rule that could be adopted as early as July.
But there are bigger institutional issues that must be addressed to improve foster care conditions, Heiligenstein said. Right now, troubled kids get bumped from facility to facility; some have more than 50 placements over the course of their time in foster care. They’re separated from siblings. And many are placed far from their hometowns, largely because half of the state’s residential treatment centers are clustered in Houston. (Dallas, which has stricter zoning requirements than Houston, has none.)
“Children in Dallas County are being sent to Houston,” she said. “That is an insurmountable distance. The odds of a child getting well and being able to go home go down when we take kids away from their home community and the adults they need a strong connection to.”
Heiligenstein said her agency will be making final recommendations for a foster care overhaul by the end of the year, including "how to obtain, contract and pay for foster care in a way that promotes better outcomes.”
“I can’t emphasize enough that we’re in the business of keeping children and adults safe. That will always be our first mission,” she said. “…In order to rebuild this, we’re going to have to look at everything underpinning the foster care system in Texas.”