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Digging Up the Past

Young adults who age out of Texas foster care often request their records to reconnect with estranged siblings, to track down biological families or to understand what they endured. But child welfare advocates complain the state routinely denies these requests, saying the records can't be found or will take months or even years to compile — assuming they respond at all. State officials admit they have a large backlog but insist they've beefed up staff and are putting new policies in place to address it.

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For years, Leigh Ecke repressed her childhood — the physical abuse from her “small-time cult leader father” and the subsequent decade she spent in Texas foster care. But when she became pregnant with her second child, Ecke decided it was time to dig up her past. She made what she thought was a routine request to the Department of Family and Protective Services, asking for her paper record.

Three years and several follow-up calls and letters later, the state had given her nothing. It took an attorney and a hand-delivered request to the agency’s head of records to get a single disk filled with mostly illegibly scanned files.

“It’s a betrayal. I was a kid in their system, a part of their family, and for three years they gave me the finger,” says Ecke, a 38-year-old social worker who lives with her husband and kids in Colorado. “I don’t have a family to keep records for me, to share information about my life. It’s so paternalistic, like I’m not competent to have my own records.”

Ecke’s experience is only unusual because of how persistent she was. Child welfare advocates say young adults who age out of foster care are routinely denied their records: The state either ignores their requests, tells them they can’t be found or says compiling the paperwork will take anywhere from months to years. Mary Christine Reed, an Austin-based attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid who has made it her mission to break through this red tape, says she has only ever heard of one former foster child accessing her records without a lawyer — and that’s because she got assistance from a lawmaker.

“I’ve been amazed at the complete lack of response, even with [former foster kids] who are organized, experienced. It just goes into a black hole,” she says. “If they don’t have a lawyer, there’s little likelihood they will ever get their records.”

DFPS, the state agency that handles foster kids’ records, acknowledges there is a backlog of record requests — the result of cumbersome, time-consuming paperwork, a short-staffed redaction division and a records release system that prioritizes legal and investigative requests and those made by potential adoptive parents over former foster kids’ requests. But officials say the perceived radio silence from the agency has been remedied; as of a few months ago, all people who make requests receive acknowledgement letters and an estimated completion time.

“Special access is not needed” for routine records requests, agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins says.

The agency already has 45 redaction specialists, each reading 1,200 pages of case files a day. Officials hired temporary workers in February to help address a roughly 10,000-request backlog, the majority of which are public requests. To date, those workers have focused on adoption records, not former foster kids’ requests; this fall, they’ll switch over to the latter, which have been pending an average of 317 days each.

Not all former foster kids seek their records. For many, it’s simply too painful. But some say they can’t fully embrace adulthood without a clear picture of their past, and they feel paralyzed by the state’s delays. They want their records to reconnect with estranged siblings, to track down biological families or to understand what they endured. Others have needed their state records to navigate bureaucratic hurdles, including proving their legal name and immigration status for identification cards or applications.   

Sandra Goets’ first failed attempts to get her Texas foster care record were in her early 20s. But the 36-year-old redoubled her efforts a few years ago, when health problems raised medical questions she was unable to answer. Why, a neurologist who performed an MRI for her migraines asked, did she have a brain scar indicative of a head injury? Why, when she had her chest X-rayed during a bad respiratory infection, could doctors identify six previously broken ribs?

“When your answer is, ‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ there are clearly things you’ve blocked out over the years,” says Goets, who was in Texas foster care from age 5 to 16. “I really felt a need to fill in the gaps.”

Her efforts have so far been futile. She’s filled out the same Form 4885 — the records request for former foster kids — five times and has made countless follow-up calls. Twice she got no response whatsoever. Once she was told her paper records were being moved to microfiche and that they were taking a long time to compile. On yet another call, she was told the agency had no record of her request. 

Goets, who lives in West Virginia and has a 7-year-old son, just submitted a final request through Reed — and is waiting anxiously for a response.

“It’s just ironic that everybody else can see this information on me, everyone else has created all these evaluations,” says Goets, who has little recollection of her early years, aside from a military father and a German mother who drank heavily and spoke no English. “But you’re not going to tell me — an adult — about my life?”

Reed doesn’t think state officials are ill-intentioned; she blames the poor responses on red tape, scattered paperwork and misplaced priorities. She says that in some cases, former foster kids have been asked to foot large bills for their records, have been given the run-around about where to find them or have been provided incomplete files. For one client Reed represented, state officials said the records wouldn’t be ready for a year, then eventually sent a follow-up letter saying the records could not be found. When Reed called, another official refused to even look the former foster child up, saying the case was too old. The client had left foster care just two years prior.  

“It’s been a painstaking process,” says Reed, who added that she’s had productive meetings with the head of records at DFPS to try to improve the process. “For these young people, they’ve been let down again.”

DFPS officials say they’ve been working on these and other shortcomings since early 2009 — implementing new standards for receiving, tracking and prioritizing requests and for precisely measuring the backlog. They’ve also improved technology, including rolling out online redaction software and digitally scanned case records. 

“We’re working as hard as possible to improve this process for everyone,” Crimmins says.

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Health care State government Child Protective Services Department of Family and Protective Services State agencies