Touring the Hellscape of Texas Foster Care

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richard wexler

Twenty years ago, when the foster care system in Illinois was at its worst, with 50,000 children trapped in foster care, an advocate in that state said the system had become “like a laboratory experiment to produce the sexual abuse of children.”

Now, with about 17,000 children in foster care, independent monitors say the Illinois system is much improved, though much remains to be done.

But the laboratory didn’t close — it just moved south. A court decision released last December is a guided tour through the hellscape that is foster care in Texas. It chronicles abuse in foster care that isn’t just common, it’s rampant. And it documents how the state turned a blind eye to suffering on a massive scale.

The decision was issued by U.S. District Court Judge Janis Graham Jack. She ruled in favor of plaintiffs in a class-action suit brought originally by the group that calls itself Children’s Rights. When that group and its founder, Marcia Lowry, divorced and Lowry formed a new group, A Better Childhood, each got custody of some of the lawsuits. Lowry got the Texas case.

The decision should be required reading for all who cling to the lie that foster care is a safe haven and there is, as one prominent denier claimed, “very little” abuse there (in spite of all the studies that show otherwise). It should be read by anyone who takes seriously the ridiculously low numbers states report to the federal government when they are asked about abuse in foster care. But Marcia Lowry and the other lawyers who worked on the case also need to read it again.

Because while a court order like this one is certainly better than no court order, and the lawsuit was better than no lawsuit, I do not understand how anyone can read that decision, let alone live with the case for years, and not conclude that a part of the solution is finding ways to keep more children out of this foster care horror show in the first place.

Yet, as is typical with her litigation, Marcia Lowry asked for no remedies to reduce needless foster care, and the decision contains none. There is no effort to curb needless removal even though most cases are nothing like the horror stories that make headlines. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.”

What is so shocking about what Judge Jack found is the pervasiveness of the abuse. She writes:

  • “The evidence reveals that child-on-child physical and sexual abuse is typical, common, and widespread throughout Texas foster care. … [The children] have been shuttled through a system where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm.”
  • “The already staggering number of [known] abuse and neglect incidents … is likely much higher because foster children either do not know who to contact, do not feel that anything will be done, or fear retaliation.”
  • “[There] appears to be a set pattern of [Department of Family and Protective Services] investigations of abuse in care. First, DFPS refuses to document or recognize child-on-child abuse. Second, even when a child is abused in foster care, the standards for finding that abuse occurred are impossibly difficult. It appears that, unless witnessed by an adult who admits seeing the abuse and thereafter refuses to do anything about it, the [standard to substantiate abuse] cannot be met. … This Dickensian approach to child abuse keeps the confirmed reports of abuse in care findings artificially low.”
  • In the past five years, Texas regulators closed only one group home or institution — but only after “the fourth homicide” there.
  • DFPS uses “make believe people” to make caseloads look artificially low.  And because regular caseworkers are so overloaded they don’t have time to see the children very often, Texas created a new category of substitutes called “I see you” workers to perform what amount to drive-by visits.  The judge implies that the whole process is a sham to make Texas look like it’s in compliance with minimal requirements to keep federal aid dollars flowing in.

Compared to all this horror, many of the remedies ordered by the judge are puny — such as insisting that there be at least one staffer awake at night in group homes.

CR likes to claim it’s impossible to sue over children not yet in foster care — though they’ve done it at least once. But there is no doubt they can be included in a settlement.  And a settlement can be built around safe, proven programs to keep families together.  That’s what happened in Alabama. (An board member of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform was counsel for plaintiffs in that suit.)

It could be done all over the country — if only CR and A Better Childhood, which combined are the 800-pound gorilla of child welfare litigation — had the will to do it.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

  • Carol G.

    OMG!!! Where did some of this BS come from? While I do admit the system has it’s flaws, I don’t believe it is a “hellscape” people make it out to be. There are some workers and foster homes that are dishonest, but most of the people I have encountered have truly want to help the children in their home have a better life. “DFPS uses “make believe people” to make caseloads look artificially low. And because regular caseworkers are so overloaded they don’t have time to see the children very often, Texas created a new category of substitutes called “I see you” workers to perform what amount to drive-by visits. The judge implies that the whole process is a sham to make Texas look like it’s in compliance with minimal requirements to keep federal aid dollars flowing in.”
    First of all I was a CPS worker for 10 years and I had a large caseload and there “was no make believe person” so my caseload looked smaller. Also the ‘I See You’ program is so the case worker did not have to travel 3 to 4 hours to see one child. A local worker would see the child and report back to the main worker. People need to actual witness what the foster care system, before judging it. I can go to any profession or system and point out the things that are wrong with it and make it look like a horrible situation, but how about talking to the children who were removed from dangerous and horrible situations and now have a forever family that cares about them and will be there for them for the rest of their lives. or the parent who was having problems and used the help that was offered to them to get their lives together and to take their kids back and successfully parent them.

    • Gwaag Freebird

      Are you insane or just blind? Do you read the news ever? We know another social worker from Texas, his name is Carlos Morales, you should get updated and check out some of his videos, like “Foster Care, Where Children go to Die”.

      The author of this article is the foremost advocate writer for child protection reform for the last 20 years, I guess you never heard of him either, figures.

    • Please take off the “blinders”… “rose-colored glasses” or what ever you are wearing.

      Texas’ child protection system has never worked correctly. Well ‘never’ might not be quite correct because we only have one report from when it was the “Texas Bureau of Child and Animal Protection” created in 1913. But from about 1988 forward we have report after report of the Texas’ agency charged with the duty of protecting children failed to follow their own Policies, Procedures, Rules and far too often even the laws relating to their jobs. In the least they are insubordinate state employees, but on the most part they are committing crimes against children. But because of bad training these employees don’t even realize they are committing crimes. In fact if you worked for DFPS after Sept 1, 1997 you may have committed a crime without even knowing it. The reason being the Children’s Commission does not include in their Judge’s Benchbook the statute that nullifies “Good Faith” immunity for DFPS employees.

      Now personally I don’t have a major problem with the “I See You” program because it is a weak form of a “Case Pooling” model that I developed. It needs modern technology to make it more accurate and accountable. But this last legislature the statute requiring the system to ever be improving with new technology was stripped away by the last Sunset bill.

      Now any one that sat through the almost 5 hours of public testimony before the Sunset Commission knows how broken this system is. They also know that instead of improving things the Sunset Commission did very little to improve things. Many feel they did even more damage.

      Personally, for those of us that monitor DFPS daily over the last decade, we can agree that the Judge’s ruling was fairly accurate. I will be glad when they make the more than 300,000 pages of discovery available for inspection.

      I am sorry but when a DFPS employee commenting on abuse in foster care says, “No Autopsy, no RTB” we have a problem.

      • Carol G.

        I am not blind, I have been in the trenches for 15 years. I didn’t say there aren’t problems, I said there are things out there that do work. When the article said that the I See You program was a way for the workers to avoid seeing kids, I personally took it as an offense. I used the I see you program so my child in Tyler, I am in San Antonio, (although this is not the only time I used it) would be seen every month. Otherwise I would have had to take an entire day to fly and drive to see him. This would have taken time away from my other 30+ children on my caseload. A worker in Tyler, just like me, would see him and report back to me.

        I know there are major issues in the system and children die. But every time an article like this comes out, I feel like it negates my 15 years of hard work, sometimes working for 10, 12 or on several occasions 24 hours at a time to ensure kids safety.
        So instead of writing linflamatory blogs, or suing thus causing a huge reactionary blow up of a troubled system why don’t people help. Let’s see maybe more mental health care/substance abuse treatment for the parents, who are the beginning of the problem. Or how about instead of trying to shut Planned Parenthood down, offering more birth control, so unwanted children are not conceived.
        How about judges that listen to the actual social work professionals, instead of the lawyers who have seen the children once.

        I know there are bad seeds, I have met a few, but the majority of the people working in the foster care system do it to protect children and being attacked almost daily certainly make the job harder.

        • Callicles

          Hi Carol. I’m joining this discussion late, but if you get this, thanks for the hard work you put in as a CPS worker. I’m reading the Jack decision, and the judge seems to acknowledge that there are lots of hard-working CPS agents who are trying to do the right thing. I’m a foster parent in Texas–I became one three years ago in the Dallas area. What strikes me the most about the court case is something that I think unites both you and me–that the problem is significant, pressing, and mostly left to a system that is unwieldy for us (witness your 30-kids caseload, or the fact that I’ve been through 3 CPAs now because two have gone under!).

          The fact that the judge in the case argues that several high ranking DFPS personnel perjured themselves on the stand or, maybe worse, couldn’t account for their own responsibilities should concern all of us. I know that both you and me are trying to act locally in the best ways we can for the foster children who are our responsibilities. I’m glad to also have this larger perspective at the same time that reminds us to be vigilant about how we participate in a system that may not be doing a good job despite our best efforts. I hope that if you are not still with CPS, you are still out there doing your best in Tyler.

    • Proudshamrock

      “Methinks thou dost protest too much”. Regarding your comment, “how about talking to the children who were removed from dangerous and horrible situations and now have a forever family that cares about them and will be there for them for the rest of their lives” would be a great argument point if it were true. The abuse, neglect, uncertainty, fear, loneliness and feeling of hopelessness is closer to the reality of the feelings of kids removed from their home. Considering you were a ‘CPS worker’ for 10 years, one would think you would have actually spoken to kids about how they felt.

      Regarding another comment of yours, “… or the parent who was having problems and used the help that was offered to them to get their lives together and to take their kids back and successfully parent them”. This is as ludicrous as your previous comment! Why don’t you do some research in a chat room (there are literally hundreds of them in Texas alone by the way) where parents whose kids have been removed by CPS are jumping through hoops to comply with the orders they’ve been given and are doing all they can to get their kids back by the deadline only to have their caseworker ignore their calls or delay enrolling them in programs. I doubt very seriously that many parents are “grateful” to CPS for causing unnecessary pain and suffering to themselves and their children.

      If you are going to defend the system who is supposed to keep children safe from harm and neglect but instead has become the most prolific perpetrator of child abuse, you really need to use facts instead of fiction because there are a very large number of people who are pretty much experts in the laws of the State and the guidelines CPS is supposed to follow.

  • Gwaag Freebird

    Come on Children’s Rights!, step it up! What do you need?

  • Another fine article Wex

  • Hailey

    CPS is a joke. I am in the process of adopting a child. He was in a foster group home. The caretaker did not withdraw him from school the day before he moved in. When he moved in, he had new glasses on order. The caretaker would not deliver it. She refilled his medicine on 12/26 after he moved in. She just had the pharmacy refill all her house. She never told me and I went to refill it and there were not refills available. She probably threw it away. Then she text me in January asking for his social security for her taxes (you cannot claim a foster child in Texas based on the high reimbursement rates – I am a CPA). The caseworker never reported this to licenscing.
    But the caseworker and his supervisor told my agency that I send to many emails about my child’s daily behavior and asked if I was mentally capable of taking care of him because sending so many emails is just too much. Um, forgive me, I had no idea that the one paragraph the case worker writes for his monthly visit was sufficient to document the child’s history.

  • Callicles

    I signed up to be a foster parent 3 years ago in Texas because I wanted to help on the “inside” in addressing chronic poverty and homelessness. I’m middle-class, white, married, with a good education, and I’m proud to be I foster parent. But at the same time, I’m actually very thankful to have the perspective from Prof. Wexler reminding us that people like me and my wife aren’t “saving” America through our actions. I value what I do, and I’m a good foster parent. Like Hailey below, I’ve had my share of frustrations with the system and with individual workers. But the trauma of removing children is larger, and the structural issue of poverty is larger, and I believe that even people like me, who have the best intentions have to act responsibly in our local situations while still keeping closely attuned to these larger issues.

    In about three years of searching, I haven’t found very many good resources for *foster parents* specifically who are trying to address the widespread problems of abuse, neglect, and systematic failure while at the same time serving within the foster system. If those of you posting can recommend ways that foster parents like me can advocate and keep closely connected to these larger issues, would you please reply? I’m trying very hard to move from just parenting to also being an advocate for good foster parenting.

  • TheMagus84

    My niece was stolen from us the day she was born. They kept her for 2 years & gave her to a foster family that wanted to adopt.
    The reason, my sister is mildly mentally challenged & was afraid to tell her family she was pregnant. We found out 3 days after she was born but they had already taken her & fought with my Mom about custody.
    They had nothing against us. Just that my sister is handicapped. That shouldn’t keep them from allowing our mother, the childs biological grandmother, have custody, but they fought us for 2 years.
    My mom didn’t get to see her first grandchild learn to talk & walk. She missed the first 2 years of her life because of CPS.
    A judge finally got fed up with CPS & sent her home to us against CPS recommendations.
    My theory, and I could be wrong about how it works, is that since my sister is disabled, my niece will receive ssi until she’s at least 18. But I was told that if she’s adopted, CPS would get that money.
    If that’s true then I’m positive that’s why they tried so hard to have her adopted.
    CPS is corrupt. The fact that they have any monetary incentive to take children from their families is so wrong. They should not be paid to destroy families. They should be paid based on how many families are helped to do better.