Texas foster care crisis worsens, with growing numbers of kids sleeping in offices, hotels, churches

ByReese Oxner and Neelam Bohra, The Texas Tribune
Monday, July 19, 2021
Texas facing shortage of foster homes, emergency shelters for children
Under Texas SB 1986, foster children and youth without placements can no longer sleep at CPS offices. Now, it's starting to take a toll on kids in need.

Prince Hayward was 6 or 7 years old the first time he spent the night on an office floor.

Hayward was ushered into a common area, and a caseworker fished out a mat for him to sleep on. His parents had lost temporary custody of him - again. The caseworker moved to another room, and Hayward lay there under the fluorescent lights, alone and wondering where he'd end up next.

From there he entered a revolving door of new foster homes, Child Protective Services offices and other unlicensed placements. Sometimes other children were there, sometimes he was alone. Sometimes he was made to throw away part of his belongings before going to the office. Until he aged out of the system at age 18, sleeping in an office became routine.

"I hate to compare it to jail, but you're basically sleeping on a jail mattress," Hayward said. "Most times I didn't sleep. I couldn't sleep. It was the environment, but also just everything was hitting you at the time."

On occasions, Hayward said, he "had to almost beg for" a shower, toothbrush, toothpaste or even a meal. Sometimes he sat all day in the office instead of attending school.

"Every day was uncertain," he said. "You don't know where you're going to lay your head - where you're going to get your next plate of food."

Hayward is one of thousands of children who've spent nights in CPS offices over the last decade, despite orders from state and local officials barring the practice. And although children without proper placements have been an issue for years, the number of children has skyrocketed, totaling nearly a tenfold increase from a year ago, The Texas Tribune reports.

More Texas children are staying in unlicensed foster homes

The number of Texas foster children placed in unlicensed facilities, like motels, churches and offices, surpassed 400 in June 2021 after trending upward for the last year. Before 2021, the number rarely went above 100. The total number of children in Texas foster care each month in 2021 averaged to 15,900, which is less than in previous years.

Source: Texas Child Protective Services
Credit: Mandi Cai

The increase in placement shortages has been spurred by shelters and placement facilities shutting down - caused by increased scrutiny on the system in the midst of a decade-long federal lawsuit and by a lack of funding for higher provider payments. Advocates and Texas Department of Family and Protective Services employees say the state's payments to private providers may not be enough to justify the costs of their services within the privatized system. This year, the state lost at least 1,000 beds for children, mostly from facilities that serve multiple children rather than from individual foster families.

"Our current situation is worsening by the day for our children and front-line caseworkers," DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters wrote in a letter to Texas lawmakers in May, outlining the rising crisis. "Our lack of capacity undoubtedly increased significantly with COVID-19, but that is no longer the primary issue. The federal foster care lawsuit and insufficient [provider payment] rates are now having a significant impact."

The crisis has worsened each month this year, with providers dropping out or refusing to accept placements. It's technically illegal to place children overnight in unlicensed facilities, but because of mounting demand, children are sleeping in such places anyway.

The harm to foster children goes beyond loneliness and missed meals. Foster children have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse in these temporary placements. Children have gone missing while in state care and some have been groomed for sexual trafficking. CPS workers - trained for case management, not therapeutic care - have their hands tied in how to respond.

RELATED: Texas facing shortage of foster homes and emergency shelters for children

"We're talking about traumatized children who have experienced abuse, neglect, who are being put in what's now makeshift residential treatment centers or makeshift group homes being supervised by CPS workers," said Judge Aurora Martinez Jones, who oversees child welfare cases in 126th District Court in Travis County. "The [CPS workers] are not trained as caregivers ... for the care of children who've been abused, neglected and who've experienced a lot of trauma. It is not serving the kids well. It is not serving the workers well."

Despite the urging of advocates and DFPS officials for increased payments for providers, lawmakers did not increase the rates during the Texas Legislature's regular session this year. Gov. Greg Abbott put the foster care crisis on the call for the special session, but that's been stalled since House Democrats fled the state to block action on voting restriction bills.

House Bill 261 appears to be the only bill filed thus far during the special session that tackles foster care funding. The bill calls for increased funding for families providing foster care for children younger than 16 and for families with incomes under the poverty line, but it does not address the critically needed facilities that can provide therapeutic care. Lawmakers have taken no action on the bill, since it was filed on Tuesday, after Democrats broke quorum.

Last month, 415 children in Texas spent at least two consecutive nights in unlicensed placements, including hotels, churches and offices, because no suitable beds were available, according to state data. That's the highest number since the state started tracking such placements five years ago.

Advocates and system workers say the woes that plague the foster care system - which is currently responsible for more than 15,000 children - range from patterns of abuse and neglect to shortages in capacity and care, a multifaceted issue with no single solution.

And the children in these unlicensed placements, officially referred to as "children without placement" or CWOP, are most often those with the most serious physiological, psychological and behavioral needs - needs that should be met by specially trained professionals working in facilities like therapeutic foster homes and residential treatment facilities. In many cases, they are children who couldn't be adequately cared for in a traditional foster home.

Dallas CASA President Kathleen LaValle, whose organization is made up of advocates for children, said children without placements tend to be teenagers who have complex needs and in some cases were given up voluntarily by their parents. These children may even have been rejected by residential treatment centers in some instances because of the lack of available beds or because they require more hands-on care than the facility can provide, she said.

"We're concentrating a congregation of high-needs kids with lots of emotion and drama built in, and then putting them in an abnormal environment that breeds destruction and instability," LaValle said. "It's a perfect storm."

The federal lawsuit targeting the Texas foster care system was filed in 2011. U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled in 2015 that Texas was violating foster children's constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable risk of harm, saying that children "often age out of care more damaged than when they entered."

Twice, Jack has held the state in contempt of the court for failing to adhere to her orders aimed at overhauling the system. The court appointed two monitors to act as watchdogs for the system and investigate areas of deficiencies.

The monitors have released multiple bombshell reports bringing shocking conditions to light, and the judge has ordered state officials to remedy a long list of deficiencies.

One of the orders requires facilities that have a high rate of contract and standards violations over several years to be put on heightened monitoring, which means the state more closely scrutinizes the operations of a facility and puts it on an improvement plan. This includes weekly unannounced visits from officials and requires approval from the CPS associate commissioner before any children in long-term foster care are placed there.

SEE ALSO: Texas leaders work to combat racial disparities against children in CPS care

Dozens of facilities were placed under this heightened monitoring after patterns of abuse, neglect and other deficiencies were discovered.

"While the District Court has explained [that] its remedies are designed to improve care and safety for children, providers nevertheless say they are afraid of heightened monitoring and what it means," Masters wrote in the letter to lawmakers.

Many advocates see the closure of such facilities as necessary.

"If there are providers being shut down because they are unsafe placements - that's what needs to happen," said Kerrie Judice, a child protective services research and policy analyst for the nonprofit TexProtects. "We don't want providers who have these long histories of deficiencies that continue to place kids in unsafe situations. Those are the operations that should be shut down."

Heightened monitoring can mean requirements to hire more staff, which advocates say is the reason some providers have closed down.

"Ultimately the problem is that it's a business," Martinez Jones said of the foster care providers. "You're going to look at the risk. Particularly with that federal lawsuit, some may look at the orders that have come out and say, 'It may not be worth the risk for me to get into that business.'"

But state Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, a former foster parent who has spearheaded a number of foster care-related initiatives, said the lawsuit is causing more harm than good.

While the judge has done her job in catching the bad facilities, Frank said, her orders and heightened monitoring have ensnared other facilities, mostly nonprofits, who are doing good work with children.

"We should be using a scalpel, not a chainsaw," he said. "I think the monitors have done a small amount of good and a whole lot of bad."

According to Frank, more than a third of all providers are under heightened monitoring, which brings with it a number of accountability measures and reporting requirements. Adding staff and fulfilling other requirements raises providers' costs. But the problem is that there is no clear pathway off of heightened monitoring, leading to facilities closing, he said.

The quickest and easiest fix for the placement crisis is to raise the amount of money paid to providers, to enable them to afford the cost of heightened monitoring, Frank said. But ultimately, he said, a sustainable way to end heightened monitoring is necessary, as well as a host of other thoughtful changes.

Frank said he's been in talks with other lawmakers, advocates and the governor's office and that he's confident the rates paid to providers will go up - even if it's in another special session this year.

Katie Olse, chief executive of the trade group Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, which represents foster home administrators, said in a statement, issued before the House quorum was broken, that her organization was pleased to see the issue on the special session agenda.

"We encourage our legislators to look at solutions that recognize and support the highly complex needs of our state's most vulnerable children and youth," Olse said.

Abbott's action provided a glimmer of hope for foster care advocates, but now that House consideration of bills is stalled, it's unclear when the placement crisis could be taken up again by lawmakers.

State employees have also supported increased rates for foster care contracts. DFPS spokesperson Patrick Crimmins said in a statement earlier this month that the department is "very appreciative of Governor Abbott for including this important issue, and we look forward to working with the Legislature and our foster care providers."

Judice said additional funding, especially for raising contract rates for providers, is badly needed. But other solutions for the placement crisis also need to be discussed, she said.

"That's not the silver bullet - like if we just fixed provider rates we can't just put our hands in the air, OK, done, we fixed the system," she said. "[But it] is definitely a piece of that puzzle."

Martinez Jones said the problems in the foster care system are abundant, and many measures need to be adopted to help fix them. She said the state should focus on a combination of infusing state funds, collaborating with local communities, increasing capacity, overhauling existing frameworks and working with families. The problem is urgent, she said.

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Way to go, grads!

"Childhood is so short," Martinez Jones said. "We have children for such a short amount of time. And during that time, they are remarkably impressed upon and transformed into the adults that they're going to become.

"If we can do better by children, we're going to do better by society altogether, and that window is short," she said. "The child welfare system needs to be reimagined in a way that actually does that, because what we have right now is a system that has a lot of expectation upon it, but it was never built to do what we expect it to do, so we have to drastically, and with urgency, imagine a better system and build that."

Now aged out of the system, Hayward works as an advocate for children in circumstances similar to what he lived through. He has a couple pieces of advice for children placed in offices now, as well as for those in foster care in general.

"Perseverance and patience," he said. "Understand that this is not the end."

As both someone who went through the system and as someone advocating for reform, Hayward said he's glad to see that the foster care crisis is on the call for the special session.

"It's about time," he said. "I would actually like to see more funds allocated to foster care [in a typical cycle], not just when it's a crisis."

Disclosure: TexProtects has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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