Nonprofit litigator Children’s Rights has sued the State of Texas, accusing its child welfare system of failing to transition foster children back home or to other permanent situations in a timely manner.
The lawsuit, M.D. v Perry, was filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, and specifically deals with the approximately 12,000 children who are in the Permanent Managing Conservatorship (PMC) of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). These are the children for whom DFPS was unable to find a permanent placement – reunification with family or adoption being the main avenues - within a year of their removal.
M.D. is a 14-year-old girl from Corpus Christi who, CR alleges, has been moved to multiple placements, denied mental health evaluations and medical services, and overmedicated with psychotropic drugs.
Once children enter PMC, Children’s Rights said in its complaint, “DFPS makes little effort to find them permanent homes.”
About 6,400 of the PMC children have been in the system for three years or more, and 500 had been in PMC for more than 10 years. More than 1,300 aged out of PMC in 2008, according to CR.
“Once children cross the line into permanent foster care, the state essentially gives up on their prospects for ever leaving state custody with permanent families of their own,” said Children’s Rights Executive Director Marcia Robinson Lowry.
CR’s lawsuit hinges on several arguments. Among them:
Frequent movement of children: By the two-year mark in care, only one in five youths in DFPS custody had been in two or fewer placements, according to a federal review of DFPS using 2008 data. Of the 6,400 children in care for more than three years in 2009, the average number of placements was 11.
“It is well documented that each move that a foster child experiences interrupts normal development and adds psychological trauma,” the complaint said.
Inappropriate use of group settings: Between 2007 and 2009, the CR suit states, the average length of stay in an emergency shelter for Texas foster children was between 36 and 40 days, even though the maximum stay is supposed to be 30 days with limited exceptions.
Youth in Permanent Managing Conservatorship were twice as likely as youths in their first year of foster care to be placed in a group setting. Texas also uses something called a “foster group home,” a more restrictive version of a foster home that is allowed to house more than six children at a time (the upper limit for normal foster homes).
“Professional standards do not recognize this hybrid form of placement,” CR said in the complaint.
Denial of necessary services: “Children placed with relatives are still in state custody, DFPS also fails to provide these children with the monthly foster care financial support that the state provides to children living with licensed foster parents,” CR said. And, the group alleges, the state makes no attempt to inform kinship care providers that they would be eligible for such support if they met licensing standards.
Insufficient number of caseworkers: The caseworkers for DFPS are “overburdened and inexperienced,” CR’s complaint said, and that has led to high turnover rates on the front lines of the system. The agency’s own strategic plan lists “unacceptably low pay, undesirable working conditions and excessive case loads” as reasons for the turnover.
DFPS has been anticipating the lawsuit since CR started requesting records in 2009, and sent an unsigned memorandum to state legislators last fall about the potential for legal action.
From the DCFS memorandum: “Reform is working in Texas,” the memo stated. “Texans know what's best for Texas. We don't need a litigious organization from New York City to tell us how to improve our CPS system. And we don't need its lawyers living off exorbitant fees paid for by the hard-working taxpayers of Texas.”
DFPS Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein told the Houston Chronicle yesterday that she fears a lawsuit will interfere with a restructuring of foster care that is already underway.
"We're on the right path and will continue to do everything we can to protect Texas children, she said, “but I worry that a lawsuit like this will take critical time and resources away from the very children it presumes to help."
Texas is the 17th child welfare system to have a class-action lawsuit filed against it by Lowry of Children’s Rights, starting with New Mexico in 1980. At the time, she was working with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Click here to read the complaint.