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Caseworkers, Kids Trapped in Collapsing Foster System

The Texas foster care system has been throwing off increasingly desperate distress signals for months. It falls to caseworkers like 27-year-old Daniel Hernandez to try to keep it working.

Child Protective Services Investigator Daniel Hernandez interviews family members during a home visit on Mar. 31, 2016.

Daniel Hernandez, an investigator for the state’s Child Protective Services agency, left his South Austin home at dawn on a recent Thursday holding a stack of folders. Their contents detailed troubles facing the children and families Hernandez was scheduled to check on that day: a starving infant, parents using drugs in front of a child and a teenager's suicide attempt.

The Texas foster care system in which Hernandez works has been giving off increasingly desperate distress signals for months. Officials are scrambling to find homes for an influx of traumatized children, sometimes having them sleep in state office buildings or parking them in psychiatric hospitals. A recent federal court ruling condemned the state's long-term foster care as an inhumane institution in which children "often age out of care more damaged than when they entered." 

In Grand Prairie, the death of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright last month led to the firing of two state workers and the resignation of another. And on Friday, news broke that the 17-year-old suspect in a homicide case on the University of Texas at Austin campus is a runaway foster youth.

It falls to people like Hernandez — a 27-year-old Texas State University graduate making roughly $43,000 each year, who's logged 125,000 miles and countless hours in his Toyota Corolla over the past four years — to try to keep the system from collapsing.

On this Thursday, first came an 8 a.m. meeting with lawyers from the district attorney’s office who had come to a Travis County children’s forensic services center. They were there to interview a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old about their infant sibling, who was apparently being starved at home. Hernandez watched from behind one-way glass. Four weeks earlier, Hernandez had discovered the infant, who at that point was “basically just bone,” he said, and accompanied the child to a hospital, staying until 2 a.m. The infant remains in the hospital and is gaining about a pound of weight each week, Hernandez said.

His investigation led Child Protective Services to find a home with relatives where the infant’s older siblings could stay while the case continued. But these days, he says, those homes are harder and harder to find.

“It’s been a lot more difficult to find placement,” Hernandez said. The Department of Family and Protective Services, the state agency overseeing foster care and CPS, is struggling with new policies and a lack of funding that have made both temporary and permanent homes for children scarce.

Advocates for foster children say the system is in crisis. If the state can't find more money to ensure good homes, they say, children will continue to endure hardships that rob them of a chance at success: no permanency, no sense of belonging and recurring trauma. In recent months, the state's ability to find temporary, out-of-home placements for children with friends or relatives has fallen dramatically, leaving an already strained foster care system to pick up the slack.

“You cut back on kinship placements, and what do you think is going to happen to your conservatorship workers and your foster parents — and these kids, who we don’t have that many good placements for them to begin with?” asked Katherine Barillas, a policy fellow for the advocacy group One Voice Texas.

“The role of advocates is, we’ve been trying to increase their capacity because it is unrealistic for us to just wag our finger in their direction and say, ‘You just have to do better,’” she said. “The system is set up to fail.”

On the way to Hernandez’s second visit of the day, at a budget motel on the interstate where two adults known to CPS had reportedly used drugs in the presence of a child, Hernandez described some of the difficulties the placement shortage had created for his team of caseworkers.

The Travis County Child Protective Services office had started a rotation, he said, for workers to be on call when they had to put a child in a placement of last resort: on an air mattress or cot in the office. In those cases, CPS workers must stay overnight with the children. It's one more duty added to the list of extra responsibilities caseworkers face when their wards cannot find a home. Hernandez has never overnighted at the office, but he said his coworkers have.

“It’s a huge ask" of the workers, said Julie Moody, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

It’s a big ordeal for the children, too, said Leroy Berrones-Soto, a 21-year-old former foster youth now at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He recalled sleeping with his six siblings in the visitation room of a Child Protective Services office in McAllen in 2011.

“I think it was an air mattress where we were sleeping,” he said. “It was really uncomfortable.”

The next day, Berrones-Soto said, the children were taken to a different CPS office, in Edinburg, where they showered and were given a change of clothing. From there he went to an emergency shelter in Laredo and shuffled through two foster placements before landing in a permanent home in Brownsville.

“It was very annoying, adjusting to new schools and friends,” he said.

April McWilliams, now a caseworker and child advocate, recalled a similar story of moving from home to home when she was in foster care from 2000 to 2004. McWilliams never spent the night at a CPS office, but she said the foster care system struggled to find placements for her with families who were a good cultural fit. At one point, McWilliams said she spent an extra week living at a juvenile detention center after her sentence had ended.

“Some things are different from when I was in care, but the overall issue — that never changes no matter how much time passes,” she said.

Adding capacity to the system is crucial, she said, but it can be difficult to line up a child’s needs with homes that can adequately serve them. She recalled stories in foster care in which her English-speaking friends were placed in homes where the caregiver only spoke Spanish. McWilliams said she lived briefly with a friendly woman who only spoke Korean.

“She was not in a position to enforce rules with me because we were not able to communicate,” McWilliams said.

Hernandez said the agency's troubles have been compounded by the state's difficulty keeping staff around.

Facing long, unpredictable hours, caseworkers leave their jobs at a high rate turnover hovers between 25 and 30 percent a year. Hernandez, with five years at the agency, is an outlier in his office; Moody, the agency spokeswoman, said CPS routinely has difficulty filling jobs. Texas caseworkers in 2015 had an average of 28 children to keep track of at any given time, according to the agency’s latest figures. The Child Welfare League of America recommends that social workers handle no more than 17 children at any given time.

Hernandez calls himself the “reassignment worker” of the office because his job is taking over cases left behind by coworkers who quit.

At the motel room, Hernandez got no answer. His next trip was to a home where police had recently visited on a domestic abuse call. (The Texas Tribune is withholding identifying information about the children and families involved in CPS cases, which the agency keeps confidential.)

At the home, Hernandez asked the mother about her relationship with her boyfriend and whether they had issues disciplining their child. While an enthusiastic puppy rubbed herself against Hernandez’s legs, the mother gave him a tour through the house to show where she kept her prescription medication and the room where the child slept.

His next stop was a psychiatric hospital, where reporters were forbidden. Hernandez was going to visit a teenager who had attempted suicide.

Texas has seen significant growth in the number of kids who’ve had prolonged stays in psychiatric facilities because the agency has struggled to find homes for them when they leave. Between June 2009 and August 2015, the number of days foster care children together spent in psychiatric facilities past their initial 8 to 10 days of treatment rose from a total of 10 extra days in the facilities to 768.

Hernandez, who studied psychology and criminal justice at Texas State University, said the work could be tragic but also fulfilling. The day before, he said, a father had thanked him for getting involved and ensuring his child's safety. Hernandez said he was motivated to take this job because of his love for children; he hopes to have children of his own someday.

But to raise a family while continuing to look out for kids as an employee of Child Protective Services?

“I’d be neglecting my own children,” he said.

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