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Bills Coming Due for State's Troubled Foster Care System

Two special masters appointed by a federal judge to oversee reforms at the state's troubled foster care system have started work, and the tab is running.

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Two special masters appointed by a federal judge to oversee reforms to the state’s embattled foster care system have begun visiting with state officials, and their recent two-and-a-half-day orientation is projected to cost the state roughly $43,000, according to state officials.

The cost of the meetings held April 25-27 are just the beginning of an open-ended tab for court-ordered oversight after U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled last year that Texas’ long-term foster care system treated children inhumanely and violated their civil rights.

In that December ruling, Jack ordered the state to pay special masters to study ways to improve foster care over a six-month period. In March, Jack picked two special masters favored by children’s rights advocates: Francis McGovern, a Duke University law professor, and Kevin Ryan, a partner at the New Jersey nonprofit Public Catalyst, which advocates for child welfare.

Emails obtained by The Texas Tribune show the special masters and their staff arranged meetings with state officials for late April. Jack approved pay for McGovern and Ryan at $345 per hour, according to the court record.

Ryan also hired four staff members to assist him: Deborah Fowler, Eileen Crummy, Lisa Taylor and Margaret McHale. McHale received court approval to charge $305 per hour; the other three staff could charge $325 per hour, according to an email from staff at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Ryan and McGovern declined through a spokesman to comment on this story.

Every time we have a federal court telling us that we’re not complying, it ends up costing us money. That’s just the way it is.— State Sen. José Rodríguez

“Special masters are not permitted, by court order, to speak with the media without prior court approval,” said Lonny Hoffman, one of the attorneys suing the state, in an email.

State officials confirmed the meetings took place, over a total of 22 billable hours. A spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services said the agency has not yet been billed for the work.

This isn’t the first time the state has been on the hook for the costs of an external review of the state's child welfare system. In 2014, the state paid The Stephen Group to review the operations of the state’s Child Protective Services agency. The initial $750,000 contract has been renewed twice, for a total cost of $2.7 million.

In this case, however, state lawmakers had no choice in approving the cost of the special masters. Lawyers for the state are appealing Jack's ruling but must comply with her orders as the appeal progresses. Republican leaders have challenged Jack’s ruling as an affront to states' rights.

A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott said the court ruling was forcing the state to spend money it could have otherwise used to improve child safety, such as hiring more staff. Much of Jack’s ruling criticized the state for failing to hire enough caseworkers to keep track of vulnerable children.

“It’s unfortunate and disappointing that millions of dollars that could have gone to serving youth in the Texas foster care system and hiring more caseworkers will now be spent towards the legally baseless special master process,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a prepared statement.

First-year caseworker pay is between $32,000 and $36,000 per year, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The agency estimates it costs about $54,000 to train each caseworker.

Democrats have welcomed the court’s involvement, seeing it as a chance to shore up a struggling system. Jack wrote in her ruling that the reforms could save the state money in the long run.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, told colleagues at an April hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that the state was simply paying on the back end for its failures to offer preventive care.

“Every time we have a federal court telling us that we’re not complying, it ends up costing us money. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “I know we’re all concerned about cost, but we always talk about how sometimes, prevention that we could’ve done could’ve saved us a lot of money.”

A spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services said the $43,000 estimate will likely grow because he expects the agency to be billed for some work prior to the orientation sessions. "The special masters began their work in earnest on April 1," Patrick Crimmins, the spokesman, said in an email.

The estimated cost of the orientation does not include any hours billed for preparation work or travel expenses.

Paul Yetter, the lead attorney suing the state, said the special masters were "gathering the information that they need."

"I think the process is going very well, and so far both sides are cooperating," he said. "The special masters are making lots of progress."

In an email sent April 6 to the court, Yetter wrote that Jack was “hesitant to generate too much in fees” and "expects all involved to avoid excessive lodging/meal expenses."

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