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U.S. District Judge Janis Jack unexpectedly ended a hearing Tuesday afternoon in a decade-long lawsuit against Texas over failures in her foster care system, saying it was time to “ pursue ”and find solutions.
“All I want us to do is come together and find solutions,” Jack said. “I am no longer interested in sanctions or putting my feet on the fire. I just want these kids to be safe. “
Jack suggested that the parties involved meet with judicial monitors – who have become experts in the field – to identify solutions to ongoing problems affecting the foster care system. His court clerk said the judge canceled the continuation of the hearing also for Wednesday.
For three hours, the judge, the children’s legal counsel and state officials had been discussing the new findings of court-appointed watchdogs, including details of unlicensed dangerous locations (such as offices and hotels) in which foster children have been placed, where many received incorrect or incorrect doses of medication, were exposed to sexual abuse or self-harmed.
Jack made his suggestion of the new approach after Paul Yetter, chief attorney on behalf of the children, asked if the Texas Department of Family Services and Welfare would be willing to sit down with his team and other state agencies to discuss possible solutions. .
The judge asked Yetter for his opinion on the solutions and made his decision. During the morning, he had spoken repeatedly about how many of the same problems have continued to affect the foster care system over the past ten years despite federal demand.
“I don’t know if anything would be served by continuing the sight,” he said. “Should we try to put our heads together and see if we can come up with something doable?”
DFPS commissioner Jaime Masters said he was “100% in agreement” with the judge’s proposal and other state officials also supported it.
Jack said that before he moves forward, he wants the governor to be able to close and support the plan.
“Governors of the past, as well as this governor and legislators of the past, have done study after study after study and come to the same problems, the exact same problems,” he said. “I think if we all work on that, we can find a way to help keep these kids safe.”
Tuesday’s hearing began after the publication of the latest report from court monitors, which detailed the disturbing conditions the children endured in state custody this year after being placed in unlicensed facilities.
Sometimes children in unlicensed locations received the wrong medication, while others were left without the prescribed medication for days, according to the report. Researchers found evidence of sexual abuse among children. Some children fled and there is evidence that some communicated with sex traffickers. Untrained staff members detained children up to 7 years old and in one place a security guard handcuffed a child.
Monitors also found that children with severe emotional disorders were hurt when they were in state custody, and some of them did not receive treatment. There is evidence that children cut themselves with sharp objects, tried to hang themselves to the point of losing consciousness and ingesting cleaning fluids.
Unlicensed locations have continued to rise in Texas since last year. During the first half of this year, 501 children spent at least one night in a location not authorized by the state, according to the new report. On average, children spent two consecutive weeks in unlicensed locations, and one child spent 144 consecutive nights in those locations.
In 2015, Jack had ruled that the state violated the constitutional right of foster children to be free from an irrational risk of harm, saying that children “often age out of care more damaged than when they entered.” Since then, many hearings have been held in federal court, Jack issued several orders with the aim of reviewing the system and the state was found in contempt of those orders twice. Monitors act as system surveillance dogs, investigating the damage caused to children inside.
Yetter said he looked forward to the opportunity to discuss solutions.
“We are cautiously optimistic. The safety of these children is our top priority and right now everyone agrees that they are in dangerous and harmful locations,” Yetter said in a statement after the hearing ended. “The prospect of working together to get a real solution, especially with the governor’s blessing, is the best way forward. I hope to start as soon as possible.”
After closing dozens of facilities recently, the system lost hundreds of beds, especially those for children with highly specialized needs. Many of the facilities that were closed were first done with intensified control, a test state that requires the state to scrutinize more closely the operations of an installation and put it on a plan of improvement.
In Texas, 485 licensed facilities provided placements for foster children between 2015 and 2020. Of those, the report says 127 were subjected to higher follow-up – representing more than one a quarter of the facilities – after accumulating a high number of violations of minimum standards in recent years. . As of Sept. 7, there were about 29,000 children in the Texas child welfare system.
And while some foster care providers have said the closures were caused by court actions, monitors maintain that those actions were necessary.
“There is no doubt that operations that qualified for high control had serious child safety issues,” the monitors wrote. In 2020 and 2021, the facilities undergoing intensive monitoring accounted for “a total of 631 justified allegations of abuse, neglect or exploitation of children entrusted to their care during the five-year period included in the analyzes and 14,227 infringements of the minimum standards, of which 12,558 (88%) correspond to minimum standards classified as high, medium-high or medium ”.
Before concluding Tuesday’s hearing, Jack responded to claims that surveillance and legal action were to blame for the crisis.
“Texas is closing these facilities because you have determined that they are not safe for children,” he said. None have been found that have been securely locked, he said.
In its own report, the Texas Department of Family Services and Protection, which oversees the state’s foster care system, said the department did not blame the court’s actions for the placement crisis. . In the executive summary of the DFPS report, signed by Commissioner Jaime Masters, the agency said putting children in unlicensed locations is a “last resort.” Masters also said the agency struggles to respond to children’s specialized needs and that pursuing an approach that keeps them with their families and connects them to treatment at home would help alleviate some of the problems.
The report of the court-appointed monitors detailed numerous accounts of children affected in these unlicensed facilities, who said they were often managed by “overwhelmed and untrained staff”.
According to the report, almost as many foster children enter unlicensed locations, spending nights in CPS offices, hotels, motels and other places under dubious supervision.
Monitors said children in these unlicensed locations were at “substantial risk,” including abuse and physical and sexual abandonment, which worsened existing emotional, mental, and physical health problems.
“By housing children in these unregulated environments, Texas has assigned children to overburdened and poorly trained caregivers to ensure their safety, placing them at an unreasonable risk of serious harm,” the monitors wrote.
According to the report, 86% of children without suitable placements observed from January 1 to June 30 were adolescents, even though the youngest child was 1 year old at the time of their placement. Many of the children require specialized care due to past traumas or their physical and mental needs.
But monitors say the behavioral and mental problems children suffered “were often made worse by the very system designed to protect them.”
Since January 2020, the state has lost more than 1,600 beds, most from operations that housed and treated children in high need.
Some of these children have been moved out of state to care for them, in Florida, Missouri, Arkansas, Colorado and Kansas, Masters said during Tuesday’s court hearing.
“We’ve exhausted all the options we have to place them,” Masters said.
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