Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Lucy, a caseworker for Texas’ child welfare agency, sat in her car outside a major-chain hotel, readying for her work shift. She flipped through the pages of her blue Bible, the size of her palm, trying to find the compassion and will to go inside.
While much of the state was about to end the workday or thinking about dinner, Lucy would keep an eye on two kids in the foster care system.
Lucy recited Bible passages to herself as she made her way to the hotel room where the kids were staying. Her shift this evening would run until 8 p.m. Other weeks, they go until midnight or even 4 a.m.
“I'm literally praying that the kiddo is asleep so there's no issues,” said Lucy, who would only speak to The Texas Tribune if her full name wasn’t used, out of fear of retaliation from the state agency. “If you're working before 8 a.m., you're not going to be able to get ahold of anybody to help you.”
Children whose home environments are determined to be unsafe or abusive end up in the hotels or offices when the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services cannot immediately find them a proper placement, like a psychiatric facility or a residential treatment center.
The kids, referred to within DFPS as children without placement, are often older teens with complex trauma and behavioral needs. Their caretakers are a revolving door of overworked caseworkers expected to administer medications, maintain a line of sight on the kids and do bed checks every 30 minutes when the children are sleeping. Property damage, verbal attacks and physical assault are recurrent during shifts monitoring children in unlicensed facilities, caseworkers told the Tribune.
There are nearly 20,000 kids in the state’s care. In fiscal year 2022, 1,242 children in the system spent at least one night in an unlicensed foster facility, like a hotel or office. On average, those children spent 15 nights in such places, according to a report from court-appointed watchdogs in a long-running federal lawsuit that has repeatedly slammed the practice.
These overnight shifts are the type of poor working conditions that are pushing DFPS employees to leave in large droves. Staff turnover at the agency is now at a record high, with nearly 1 in 3 employees leaving in fiscal year 2022.
Caseworkers, who make up the backbone of the Texas foster care system, told the Tribune that the conditions — like low staffing, low pay and burnout — jeopardize the quality of care they are able to provide to the state’s most vulnerable kids. The average salary for a caseworker is nearly $53,000.
"I'm not sure we can right this ship. We've lost so many tenured caseworkers," Lucy said. "And these kids are wasting their life and time away ... It's having this trickle down effect of destruction."
DFPS officials have publicly said they’re working to limit the number of children in unlicensed facilities by adding places where youth with complex mental and behavioral health needs can stay. But the agency is also facing a substantial loss in the number of beds available at licensed facilities. The agency could be held in contempt of court in the ongoing federal lawsuit because the lawyers suing the state argue the placement crisis creates unmanageable workloads for caseworkers and puts all kids in the state’s long-term care at risk.
Caseworkers are expected to sign up for overnight shifts to supervise children without placement as often as five times a month, according to Myko Gedutis, an organizer with Texas State Employees Union. That’s on top of their regular caseloads. The agency has said the shifts are voluntary, but according to Gedutis and caseworkers that spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity, the agency will assign shifts if they do not volunteer.
"They say sign up for the shift that you want. Well, I don't want any of them," Lucy said. "I wouldn't be doing this voluntarily because it's such a mess. It's so dangerous for everybody."
When Lucy got to the hotel room this evening, the two kids were asleep. Lucy sat in the corner, reading through the kids' files, checking the clock every so often, waiting for her shift to end.
During her prior overnight shifts, a young girl got violent with a coworker. Another child threw Lucy's computer against the wall. She's terrified of what's next: "I haven't been hit, kicked ... my days are coming."
Lucy has developed several physical health conditions since she started working for the state agency. If she is hurt during a shift, she worries she won't be able to bounce back.
“I'm not a youngster. I can't have somebody putting their hands on me like that,” she said.
Facing a contempt of court motion
Children sleeping in hotels and offices because of placement shortages have been at the center of a long-running federal lawsuit against the agency. In a January hearing, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack asked the state to commit to having zero children without placement by this past June.
The state evaded the question.
“I can commit that we will continue to put the same level of effort towards reducing those numbers,” DFPS commissioner Stephanie Muth said.
Jack, well-known for her scathing criticisms of how Texas cares for foster kids, didn’t appear appeased.
“I just don't understand why we're still here,” Jack said. “I find that having one child in this type of dangerous placement is unsafe.”
Paul Yetter, an attorney representing foster kids, is now asking the judge to hold the state in contempt of court because of the placement crisis.
In an August filing, Yetter said staff responsibilities to supervise children in unlicensed placements had resulted in unmanageable workloads and caseworker turnover. He said overloading DFPS workers put all children in the system at risk.
“It is wishful thinking by the State to presume that caseworkers crushed with mandated double duty can keep any children safe for very long,” Yetter wrote in the court filing.
As facilities close, agency turns to employees
The number of children without placements — who are spending nights in unlicensed facilities like motels, hotels and offices — has jumped since 2020.
The increase in placement shortages has been spurred by placement facilities shutting down. Facilities housing foster kids started to face increased scrutiny from the federal judge.
In Texas, 485 licensed facilities provided placements for foster children between 2015 and 2020. A quarter of those facilities were placed under heightened monitoring for racking up standards violations and allegations of abuse, neglect, or exploitation of children in their care.
In 2021, the state lost at least 1,000 beds for children, mostly from facilities that serve multiple children rather than from individual foster families.
“Texas is closing these facilities because you've determined they're unsafe for children,” Jack said in September 2021.
Advocates also say the state’s payments to private providers may not be enough for entities to agree to take kids in. With hundreds of facilities under heightened monitoring, the private providers also felt like they were assuming an increased risk by taking children with complex needs.
“The response from the industry was, well, we'll take those kids at a high bid, but you have to pay us more,” Gedutis, the union representative, said, “We'll assume that risk at a high cost to you.”
Based on data that is more than a decade old, the rates for private providers are often not enough to cover the cost of services for the kids. Rates are also tied to the needs of a child. That means when kids with complex behavioral and mental health needs see improvements, providers can see a drop in payments. The state agency is overhauling the payment system and the changes will go into effect as early as January 2025.
For years, when the agency couldn’t find foster kids homes, they would typically spend a couple nights at an emergency shelter, which ranged in quality, said Lori Duke, the co-director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. Children sleeping in offices and hotels used to be a last-resort option, Duke said.
But a large number of emergency shelters have also shut down, in response to scrutiny from the lawsuit. Coupled with the loss of state beds, children in hotels and offices became the standard.
Already in charge of more than 10,000 employees, DFPS leadership turned to its caseworkers to care for the children at the center of the placement crisis.
“It was an easy solution for the state. They warehoused the kids and threw bodies at it,” Gedutis, the union organizer, said. “There was just no regard for workers' safety.”
States across the country have struggled with placement shortages, particularly for children with complex needs. Oregon has continued to place foster kids in hotels, defying a settlement from a class action lawsuit in 2018. Washington has placed children in foster homes unequipped to handle them, which led to foster families dropping out of the system, the head of its foster care agency wrote in a state budget request.
Texas lawmakers this year set their sights on reducing the number of all children entering the system and increasing legal representation for foster kids. They added some mental health support for kids in foster care, including 20 inpatient mental health beds and three new mobile crisis teams dedicated to foster kids, which is expected to help alleviate the placement shortages.
Legislators failed to pass Senate Bill 1853, which would have prohibited DFPS from advocating in court that a child remain in an unlicensed temporary placement if a safe and appropriate licensed placement was available.
“The legislators, we’ve all but given up on,” Gedutis said. “Even the legislators that do care, they aren’t speaking up. These are kids out of their communities that are going to be adults in their communities. And they’re just throwing up their hands.”
“CPS is to blame”
Before DFPS staff in Harris County start their shifts, they get information about children sleeping in the hotels there. One young girl in the state’s care likes swimming, animals and sports — but will bite if she does not get her way.
A teenage boy, who has multiple mental illnesses and developmental disorders, is easy to talk to, notes shared with the Tribune say. He likes crafting and watching TV and YouTube. But the teen is attached to his electronics and will destroy property or assault adults who attempt to take them away.
Caseworkers described DFPS offices littered with holes from when a child punched or kicked the wall.
Samantha worked as a Child Protective Services caseworker for four years before she quit in February. The former employee, who asked the Tribune not to disclose her full name because she still works with the agency in her new role, said she was sorely lacking guidance from the agency on how to safely restrain kids when they got aggressive.
She felt uncomfortable with managing medication for the children during her shift, too. The directions for administering the medications were not always clear — and Samantha did not have the training to decipher what was an appropriate dose.
“What if I accidentally gave them the wrong dose?” Samantha worried. “Some medications were kind of funky looking.”
A spokesperson for DFPS told the Tribune that DFPS employees are required to complete 10 separate trainings before they work a shift monitoring kids without placement. The trainings cover trauma-informed care, psychotropic medication, and supervision in this kind of environment.
Samantha remembers meetings with the agency about expectations for the overnight shifts but said she never received any specific training that was “truly helpful.”
Didi, a former caseworker of 15 years, said CPS is failing children without placement. She also asked that her full name not be used because she is considering returning to work at the agency.
Didi now works at a community mental health center. In her new role, she received a four-hour certification in transporting and distributing medication. She said she received no such training from the DFPS even though she regularly handed out medication to children in unlicensed facilities.
She has heard the agency's repeated promises to improve the placement crisis. But three years in, she says little has changed to improve conditions for caseworkers and the kids.
“You've got really hardcore teenagers who are going to have a really rude awakening at 18,” Didi said. “Because we're not preparing them for anything and we're not giving them any kind of stability. And CPS is to blame for that.”
With nothing but highway road in front of her, Lucy’s eyelids started to feel heavy. She had just finished an overnight shift.
Apple Maps said she was at least 45 minutes away from home. But the long work days had caught up to her. The seat headrest started to feel like a makeshift pillow. She started to give in.
Then, the car swerved.
It jolted her awake. She gripped the steering wheel tight and pulled over onto the shoulder.
“I nearly got killed coming home because I was so tired,” she said. “I never sleep well. I am so down to my bones exhausted.”
She took a swig of her Coke, flicked some water on her face, restarted her car engine and continued driving home before she would do it all over the next day.
The Texas Tribune Festival is almost here! Join us Sept. 21-23 in downtown Austin for 125+ unforgettable conversations featuring nearly 300 speakers. Be there for Texas’ biggest politics and policy event when you buy your tickets today.