One year after a federal district judge heard evidence alleging that Texas Child Protective Services had violated foster children’s civil rights, both lawyers for the state and the advocates who filed suit are anxiously awaiting a potentially sweeping legal decision. Observers say it could arrive any day now.
The class-action lawsuit, brought by the New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights, Inc. on behalf of children currently in long-term foster care, argues that Texas caseworkers are assigned too many children for them to effectively monitor and that kids are placed too far away from home into settings where they do not get appropriate care.
The agency that oversees foster care has publicly conceded issues with the system, but it disputes that any failings rise to the level of civil rights violations. Lawyers for the state have also argued the lawsuit is misplaced because it "would effectively require the court to take over and administer Texas' foster care system," when that responsibility should fall to the Texas Legislature.
The lawsuit was filed in 2011 against the administration of then-Gov. Rick Perry, and it went to trial in December 2014. In it, Children’s Rights asked U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi to order CPS to take steps such as hiring more qualified caseworkers and setting lower caseload limits. The lawsuit also calls for the state to quit placing children with no special needs in more restrictive residential treatment centers and for better staffing ratios in group foster homes.
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Texas “has an insufficient number of caseworkers, forcing caseworkers to carry over double the caseload limits under recognized standards, putting children at risk,” the advocacy group wrote on its website, adding that many foster children “languish in care without permanent homes."
A spokeswoman for Children’s Rights declined to be interviewed before the court makes a ruling. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the state agency that oversees CPS, also declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for the federal court where the case was argued did not respond to multiple phone calls.
But court observers on all sides appear anxious about the case, which has high stakes for the future of CPS. The state agency could be on the hook for “hundreds of millions of dollars” if the court orders it to make expensive changes on behalf of kids in a class known as permanent managing conservatorship, according to the agency’s previous statements.
“Other states sued by Children’s Rights lawsuits have been forced to comply with costly reforms, such as a court-ordered monitor, new computer systems and mandated reduced caseloads, which requires the hiring of more workers,” CPS wrote in 2014.
On the other hand, a ruling against Children’s Rights would mean a tough loss for reformers fighting for smaller, more manageable caseloads for state employees who monitor foster kids. Supporters of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services say the children's advocates face a difficult task in seeking to prove that all long-term foster care kids in an agency that oversees 28,000 children are having their rights violated.
Texas' roughly $1.2 billion-per-year Child Protective Services division, with about 8,000 employees, is one of the nation’s largest child abuse investigation and foster care teams. Independent child welfare advocates say a ruling in favor of Children's Rights could require significant changes at the agency, raising questions about whether state lawmakers would need to reconvene during a special legislative session to implement — and allocate money for — reforms.
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“We're all interested to see how the ruling adds new urgency and new issues to the Legislature's plans to address child welfare,” Ashley Harris, a former CPS caseworker and current child protection policy associate at the advocacy group Texans Care for Children, wrote in an email.
Harris said Texas has taken “some important steps” toward reform since the lawsuit was filed in 2011, including new laws that improve screening and training of prospective foster parents. Those reforms could weigh into the judge’s ruling. And ahead of the 2017 legislative session, some state lawmakers are charged with taking a look at the services foster care kids receive while under the state’s ward.
“There are other issues that are critical to child safety and success in foster care, such as CPS staff caseloads, that may get added to the agenda based on the court's ruling,” Harris said.
The pending lawsuit comes on the heels of Gov. Greg Abbott calling for change at the Department of Family and Protective Services. In the wake of three child deaths under the state’s watch during the first three months of 2015, Abbott asked the agency to step up enforcement to prevent further tragedy.
“Abuse or neglect of our most vulnerable Texans — our children — is intolerable and it is especially unacceptable when it happens to a child under the care umbrella of the state of Texas,” Abbott wrote to the agency in a March 25 letter.