The number of children sleeping in Child Protective Services offices shot up after an internal policy change at the agency limited child placements, according to state data released Thursday.
Sixteen children spent at least two nights sleeping in CPS offices last month, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services — more than three times the number from the year before. Overall, the number of children spending multiple nights in offices with caseworkers has spiked in the last 11 months, with an average of about 10 children left in the placement of last resort each month since April 2015.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services concedes it is facing a critical shortage of placements for children removed from their parents.
But compounding that shortage is a recent policy change at the agency that has caused a dramatic increase in the number of children removed from their extended families by CPS workers — and the state appears ill equipped to handle the influx.
New restrictions limiting the agency’s ability to place children with family members outside the home caused CPS removals to grow 37 percent between January 2015 and January 2016, according to the agency.
Meanwhile, the number of children in “parental child safety placements” — also known as short-term, informal kinship placements, in which kids typically stay with extended family members outside of the home — fell 56 percent over the same time period.
The dramatic changes occurred after a new policy limited the pool of adults who qualified to take in a child in an informal kinship placement.
The agency temporarily halted all parental child safety placements last year while it studied policies to improve child safety. That came after Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to agency head John Specia, ordering him to step up enforcement of kinship placements. The letter followed several high-profile news reports of child deaths.
In February, the agency reinstated kinship placements but placed new restrictions on families seeking to become caretakers. The agency banned placements in households where a person had any criminal convictions or CPS history, saying the move would reduce the risk of harm to children.
“As we all know, decisions about the appropriateness of PCSPs have to be made quickly,” CPS head Lisa Black wrote in a Feb. 3 memo obtained by the Tribune. “When there is abuse, neglect, or criminal history on a member of a PCSP household, often there is insufficient time to gather information and thoroughly evaluate all the circumstances.”
The crackdown on the number of placements cut back on the risk of placing children in kinship care but also sharply limited the pool of potential child placements. In April of last year, just after the agency stopped placing children in any parental child safety placements, the number spending multiple nights in CPS offices spiked to 19 — its highest level in nearly a decade — from three the month before.
In recent weeks, Specia and Black have separately announced they will retire from the agency at the end of March.
Another factor contributing to the state’s placement shortage is a recent order from a federal judge that the state stop placing children in foster care group homes that lack 24-hour surveillance.
In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack found that children in such homes were at undue risk of neglect and abuse. She also found that the state’s long-term foster care violated children’s civil rights, often leaving children "more damaged than when they entered." The state has appealed that ruling to a higher court.