13 Investigates: Teen shot after sneaking out, another 'sleeping off a hangover' under CPS's care

Advocates believe Texas is "abandoning" its most vulnerable children.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021
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Despite court orders to stop children from living in CPS offices, the state is still shuffling kids from one unlicensed facility to the next, including hotels, motels or government offices.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Prince Hayward stuffed everything he owned into a black trash bag.

He was about seven years old when he spent the night sleeping on the floor of a Child Protective Services employee's office in southwest Houston with his lone bag of belongings beside him.

One night turned into another as he ended up spending two weeks living in an office because there weren't any foster families or homes that would take him -- not even temporarily. When Hayward returned to his biological family, the abuse and neglect continued, and he was forced to spend his nights sleeping in CPS offices across the state again and again. He aged out of the system without ever being adopted.

"You go to the restroom wherever the caseworker would normally go to the restroom. You would sleep on the floor. You'd be lucky if you had a pillow. You'd be lucky if you had a blanket," Hayward, now 26, recalled in an interview with 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "Most of the time you'd be by yourself, you know? You're there in your own traumatic thoughts as a kid with a person who, at five o'clock, is going to go home."

A young Prince Hayward

Two decades later, despite assurances from the state and court orders to stop other children from living in CPS offices like Hayward, the state is still shuffling kids from one unlicensed facility to the next. Some end up in CPS offices. Others stay in hotels, motels or government shelters, all under the watchful eye of what insiders tell us are overworked and at times undertrained and underequipped CPS staff.

Statewide, nearly 15,000 children are in CPS custody. Most of the children are in foster homes, but every year, hundreds of children, mostly older teens, are considered CWOP, or children without placement, and placed in unlicensed facilities. In May, 310 children spent at least two nights at CWOP locations across the state.

In July, 79 children spent at least two nights in offices, motels or other unlicensed facilities in the Houston area alone. The previous month, one child without placement snuck out and was shot in the back of the head while allegedly trying to carjack someone. The Houston Police Department said it was the teen's second alleged carjacking that night.

Paul Yetter, who represents thousands of Texas foster care children in a class action lawsuit against the state, said Texas is "abandoning" its most vulnerable children.

In one case, Yetter said a child slept in an office for 80 straight days.

"This is not a one night here, one night there. Some of these children are sleeping weeks at a time in unlicensed facilities, and it's just dangerous and it should never happen in a state like Texas," he said. "The state knows it has a problem. The state knows that they have a crisis with these children. The state has got to focus on it and fix it. They've got to allocate the funds so they have safe placements. It's not a matter of whether the state can do it. The state just has to make it a priority to keep these children safe."

'Significant crisis'

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters admits the CPS system is strained more than ever.

During a House Appropriations committee meeting on Aug. 23, Masters told lawmakers CPS staff do not receive the training needed to deal with foster children who have specialized needs, leaving them feeling "completely worn out" and leading to high turnover.

"Children fight. Children attack staff. We've had staff put in the emergency room. We've had other children who have been hurt by other children. We have children that Uber from one CWOP location to another to beat up kids. We have kids that are severely mentally ill, and it's traumatic for other kids and staff to watch what those kids go through," Masters told lawmakers last month.

"There's really no way to be able to put into words what our kids and our staff are experiencing in CWOP. It is a significant crisis."

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters speaks at a House Appropriations committee meeting on August  23, 2021.
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters speaks at a House Appropriations committee meeting on August 23, 2021.

The appropriations committee is addressing the need for better protection of Texas' foster children and retaining private providers after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott added it to the current special session agenda.

Lawmakers recently approved $90 million to DFPS over a two-year period to help with the foster care crisis. The bill passed the Texas House and Senate and is currently awaiting the governor's signature.

CPS turned down 13 Investigates' request for an on-camera interview, citing an upcoming court date. On Sept. 14, the state agency is due back in court in front of a judge who is demanding a state action plan.

In an email, DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the state has lost 1,000 beds for foster children and "COVID-19 damaged the capacity and weakened what had been a resilient system."

Crimmins admits, "a DFPS office is not where we want a child to stay."

But, he said there are a number of reasons a child could end up sleeping at a CPS office, including an emergency removal or a removal of siblings, but that every child should have an appropriate placement.

He said the state is looking into better ways to determine and share real-time information on placements and hopes, with the legislature's support, they can hire qualified staff to serve youth with highly-complex behaviors and needs.

Masters said the state has a hard time getting foster care providers to accept children with more specialized needs due to heightened monitoring following a judge's order as part of the ongoing federal lawsuit. The monitoring includes unannounced visits at facilities to identify if improvements are taking place as part of their improvement plan.

"If the providers are concerned about heightened monitoring, it does hamper their desire to take some of the higher acuity kids," she said.

A decade-long class action lawsuit was filed in federal court in 2011. Over the years, the court has found the state failed to protect foster children from "an unreasonable risk of harm" and called for court-appointed monitors to investigate areas of improvement and ensure compliance with standards.

A nearly 400-page monitoring report released in May said the state was not reporting data regarding children without placement to the monitors, which indicates "a gap in quality assurance and oversight."

"As the federal judge has found, children are leaving Texas foster care worse than they went in and it's not just irresponsible, it's unforgivable for a state like Texas, with all the resources that we have, not to be treating these most vulnerable citizens in a way that they deserve and just giving them safe homes," Yetter said.

'This cannot go on'

At 26 years old, Hayward now advocates for the younger version of himself -- the foster child who went to 30 different high schools while moving from one CPS office to another, who didn't have a mentor and who thought the system would have improved by now.

"Do better," he said. "You see what's going on, so do better."

13 Investigates' Ted Oberg interviews Prince Hayward, who spent his childhood living in CPS offices while under the state's care.

Despite being held in contempt of court twice for not following the judge's orders to stop housing children in CPS offices and motels, the state continues to do so.

When visiting some of those CWOP locations during a ride-along with CPS last month, one assistant attorney with the Harris County Attorney's Office told the state she was "still a little shaken."

The attorney recalled visiting three facilities where she saw "children sleeping in offices on makeshift palettes" with no privacy and "no rooms to call their own," according to the letter, obtained by 13 Investigates.

"It was heartbreaking," she said.

At another facility, that attorney said caseworkers told her a female teen was sleeping off a hangover after getting drunk the night before. The attorney said the state described that behavior as "par for the course."

"Most of the children leave in and out of the CWOP facilities whenever they want to smoke weed, have sex, get drunk," the attorney said. "The children know that DFPS workers cannot make them stay."

At the third location, the attorney said a 16-year-old child knocked the glasses off her face in an attempted assault. The attorney said she was told it wasn't worth pursuing charges against the child because it likely wouldn't go anywhere.

"This situation was eye opening to say the least. Something has to be done for the children's safety, the workers' safety, and to get these children in a place where they (have) structure and discipline. This cannot go on like it is," the attorney said. "I wanted to do this ride-along to see first-hand what our client was up against and I certainly got the picture."

When 13 Investigates showed Hayward that letter, he said he wasn't surprised by what is going on at those facilities, saying it's been happening for years. But, he was shocked staff call it "par for the course" and worries normalizing situations like that means it won't ever change or get better for the "young princes" -- the foster care children who are in the same spot he was in a decade ago.

"They deserve the right to be stable," Hayward said. "They deserve the right to be loved, to be cared for, to know that they are being put on the right track and not just left to do whatever."

'Staff are fearful'

Records show just recently three kids at a CPS shelter locked another teen in a room, held a Glock to that child's head and threatened to kill him. When police arrived, they said the gun didn't have any live ammo, but did have BB ammo inside.

When we asked CPS about that incident, and the other incidents insiders told 13 Investigates about, they referred us to Masters' statements to lawmakers in August.

CPS insiders say this weapon was found on a child at one of the state's shelters for foster children. He allegedly pointed it at another foster youth's head.

During those comments, Masters described another case in Harris County where a teenage boy allegedly attacked a girl at a CWOP facility where they both were located. Masters said the teenager was significantly larger than the girl and staff, who "were powerless to pull him off of her."

She said the teen was arrested, but brought back to the CWOP facility the next day.

"These are not little kids and our staff are fearful. I get emails daily from our staff that they are afraid to come to work. That they don't think anyone cares about them and they feel powerless," Masters said. "There are many times when we call for help and nothing happens to the child. And we're not helping the kid. If there are no consequences for any kind of behavior ... when they age out, the world isn't going to care about their trauma. They can't just go punch somebody in the face when they age out and they're used to nothing happening. What our staff sees is the only ones with consequences is our staff."

Yetter said it is not an answer for the state to criminalize children whose reactions are predictable.

"These children have no one to protect them but the state," he said. "They're children that have significant emotional needs, and they shouldn't be in an unlicensed facility that isn't there to protect them, in some ways, from themselves."

Yetter said the state is required to not only provide safe facilities, but also qualified caregivers. Without that specialized care, he said foster children don't have anyone giving them a "normal" life and end up unprepared for adulthood.

"They end up either in the criminal justice system or they become sex trafficked. They rarely get a good education and their future is bleak and that is a terrible cycle that the state can stop if we can just focus on these children and break the cycle," he said.

Yetter's decade-long civil suit is still playing out in court.

Since it was filed in 2011, Hayward turned 18 and aged out of the system, but he still remembers the four walls and a mat that became his home for weeks at a time.

As he stood outside that CPS office in southwest Houston, he reflected on how much more the state has to do to be a better parent to abused and neglected children in their care.

"It's weird. This used to be home," Hayward said. "It's not a home."

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