Overhaul broken foster care system

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How many children in foster care have to be abused and retraumatized before the state finally realizes it has a problem?

On March 9 a group of dedicated employees from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services stopped by my office to ask for help. They asked: Why is the state paying for an appeal of the Dec. 17 ruling by U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi rather than paying to fix the problems raised during the court case?

In her ruling against the State, Judge Jack concluded that the poor management of caseworkers leads to consistent abuse of children in Texas’ foster care system — therefore violating their “Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable risk of harm.” Later, she says “DFPS is deliberately indifferent toward caseload levels.”

When would the state realize that caseworkers have been stretched too thin to do their jobs well, that its foster care system relies on inappropriate and unsafe placements? Despite being a member of the Texas Senate, I didn’t have a good answer for them. The overwhelming caseloads they and many of their coworkers are required to juggle on a daily basis are burning out experienced employees and leading to dangerous situations for children.

I have thought about this meeting for three weeks, and I still don’t have good answers for them. The issues raised in Judge Jack’s ruling and by the DFPS employees are not new; they are not unfounded; and they are not going to fix themselves. In 2015 the Texas Legislature passed SB 206, a law that fixed some of the contributing factors to high employee turnover and poor caseworker retention, but Judge Jack’s ruling on Dec. 17 stated that those efforts were insufficient.

Judge Jack ruled clearly and decisively against the state after hearing from 28 fact witnesses (including 14 current DFPS employees and five youths in the Texas foster care system), reading through 20 case files (with over 350,000 pages of documentation), examining 400 individual exhibits, and breaking down six in-depth reports by both government agencies and experienced entities unaffiliated with the Texas system.

While the Texas Attorney General’s Office is trying to paint this ruling as an example of “a misguided federal takeover,” I can’t help but feel that the state is fighting because this may be a case where fighting is easier than fixing. The stories told on the stand by the youths in foster care, the case files Judge Jack read, and the testimony provided by DFPS employees were words provided by Texans about the Texas system. Judge Jack’s ruling isn’t a faraway federal government overreaching; it's a wake-up call from those utilizing and administering the system firsthand right here in Texas.

Texans should insist our state stop fighting the ruling; we have complex problems to attend to, and we need to get started. Fixing the structural weaknesses within the foster care system, reducing the number of cases assigned to our caseworkers, and improving the permanency process for our families are steps two, three and four. Together, let’s take step one and admit we have a problem. Only then can we get to work on the solutions.

Carlos Uresti represents Texas Senate District 19, which includes Pecos County.

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