June 23, 2016  |  Statewide

Judge doubles workload for team working on foster care overhaul

AUSTIN – (HOUSTON CHRONICLE) A federal judge, frustrated by the lack of progress overhauling Texas’ “broken” foster care system now has investigators cramming a year’s worth of work into four months.

Judge Janis Graham Jack of the Southern District of Texas approved a work plan Monday that orders nine experts to collectively spend up to 2,034 hours from June through September devising answers to problems that long have handicapped the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and moved children from one dangerous home into another.

“The Court feels that not enough time has been dedicated and parties are not properly prepared,” the judge wrote last week in response to a proposal that a team of six dedicate up to 1,137 hours compiling recommendations to the court on how to fix the state’s foster care system.

The plan approved Monday adds three investigators and nearly doubles the amount of time the team is expected to spend coming up with recommendations, but keeps the original deadline at the end of September.

Jack last December declared the state’s foster care system “broken” and unconstitutional. She ordered an overhaul of the entire foster care system in a scathing 255-page order that concluded foster children “almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”
She found that “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm,” that child-on-child abuse in licensed foster care placements is common but not tracked, and that children who rape other children continue to do it as they relocate to new homes.

Caseloads range from unsustainable to unbearable, she found, with workers often juggling some 30 cases at a time, burning out nearly one in five workers every year. State officials have said the ideal caseload is between 18-22.

In one instance, 4-year-old Leiliana Wright of Grand Prairie died in April after having been choked, force-fed, bound in a closet and bruised “from head to toe” for drinking her brother’s juice. Her caseworker assigned to protect her had a caseload of 70, according to stories in the Dallas Morning News.

Earlier this year, Jack appointed two special masters to supervise a system overhaul and produce recommendations that can be used to propose changes in the 2017 legislative session.

Texas spent $403 million on foster care in fiscal 2015, according to the DFPS annual report.

Overall, some 16,127 kids were in foster care across the state, including 2,288 in Harris County in May, according to the department’s monthly foster care report. At that time, Montgomery County had 171 children in foster care, compared to 115 in Brazoria County and 77 in Fort Bend County.

$345 an hour

Jack was “very satisfied” with the new, beefed-up work plan, said Marcia Lowry, co-council for the plaintiffs, who was on a conference call with the judge and the case’s attorneys Monday. She represents A Better Childhood, a New York-based advocacy group that targets dysfunctional child welfare systems across the country.

The experts on the special masters’ team are expected to make up to $345 an hour reviewing records and crafting recommendations, according to court records. Under the work plan’s estimate, the four-month query could cost Texas an estimated $600,000.

Neither Jack nor spokespeople for the state Department of Family and Protective Services or the Texas attorney general’s office fighting the case, responded to requests for comment Monday. Special master Kevin Ryan declined comment, saying the court has forbidden him from communicating to the press.

The revised work plan approved by the judge adds 897 hours and three investigators to the effort, according to a review of court records by the Houston Chronicle.

The revised plan calls for the team to spend up to 678 hours, the equivalent of 28 uninterrupted days, examining the record, trial transcript and exhibits of the lawsuit M.D. v. Abbott.

Recommendations are expected to be rooted in findings from the trial, which also found the state has an unusual way of counting caseloads, said Lowry.

“It’s very hard to measure where the caseload gaps are and, in fact, what the standards should be. One of the things that came out of the case is that Texas doesn’t have standards, and measures caseloads in a way other states do not,” she said.

Closer look at caseloads

Nearly doubling the amount of time the team is expected to spend on its recommendations shows the court wants a thorough investigation and a set of effective proposals, said Paul Yetter, a Houston lawyer leading the challenge against the state foster care system on behalf of children in long-term care and their advocates.

“Caseworkers are literally buried in work and just too busy to keep children safe. Without manageable caseloads, innocent children are at risk. Everyone knows this,” Yetter said.

The new work plan doubles to almost 250 hours the time for researching and making recommendations on tracking caseloads, the time it takes caseworkers to complete tasks and how to keep workloads manageable enough to keep children free from unreasonable harm.

Caseworker turnover and inadequate placement of children are the two most daunting challenges facing how the state cares for at-risk children, and are the hardest problems to solve, said Scott McCown, University of Texas law professor and director of the Children’s Rights Clinic, which represents children in CPS cases.

“They’re the most expensive to solve,” McCown said. “Any solution’s going to be very expensive, so you have to figure out whether a proposal is really a solution, because it’s going to cost a lot of money, and you have to build a strong case for why you need to spend the money.”

Andrea Zelinski
Reporter, Austin Bureau
Houston Chronicle