Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Texas Hide ‘em: Nearly Two-thirds of state’s foster care placements are “off the books”

The repeated claims that Texas takes proportionately few children are false.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

The claim has been made over and over by Texans who want the state to take away more children: Texas, it is claimed, takes away children at a much lower rate than other states.

That claim always hid more than it revealed.  But now it turns out that the claim is flat-out false in every respect.  Because now we know that when Texas tells the federal government, and the public, how many children it placed in foster care in a given year, Texas simply leaves out nearly two-thirds of the placements.

Texas does this by slapping a different label onto these placements.  They’re called “parental child safety placements.”  They are a form of kinship care – that is, placement with extended family or friends of the family instead of with total strangers.  Kinship care almost always is a  better,  safer option than stranger care. But it is still foster care.

Here’s how it works. The state Department of Family and Protective Services decides to remove a child from the home.  In order to make the process easier – for the agency, not the family – they essentially blackmail the parent: Give us the child and let us place him “informally” with a relative, without involving the court, or we’ll go to court and your child might wind up with a stranger – or worse, in one of our wonderful Texas institutions.

And make no mistake – once the child is gone, the child welfare agency and maybe, at some point, a court, but not the parent decides when or if that child will ever come back. It is a foster-care placement in everything but name.

The federal government understands that these placements are, in fact, foster care and should be counted as such.  As we noted in a previous post to this blog:

Federal regulations define foster care as :

24 hour substitute care for all children placed away from their parents or guardians and for whom the State agency has placement and care responsibility. 

The regulations go on to say that

the State is required to count a placement that lasts more than 24 hours while the child is in foster care under the placement, care or supervision responsibility of the State agency” 
 Note that it does not say “custody” of the agency, only “placement, care or supervision responsibility.”

What we did not know when we put up that previous post, and the real shocker in all this, is how widespread the practice is. 

Officially, Texas took away children 17,357 times in 2014 – at least that’s what Texas reported to the federal government.  But according to a December, 2015 report from a  “roundtable” of “stakeholders” convened by the Texas Supreme court Children’s Commission there also were 34,000 so-called parental child safety placements. 

According to the report, about 4,000 of those PCSPs later became officially-counted foster care placements, so counting those 4,000 would be double counting. But that still leaves 30,000 foster care placements in 2014 that Texas simply chose to call something else.

Or to put it another way, Texas has been hiding more than 63 percent of its foster care placements from the federal government – and from anyone else trying to compare the rate at which states take away children.

Put back those off-the-books placements and Texas is apparently taking away children at a rate more than 60 percent above the national average – even when rates of child poverty are factored in. 

Of course, that assumes Texas is the only state that cheats this way.  That’s almost certainly not the case.  We’ve known for nearly a decade that Kansas has its own way of cheating.  And kinship care is particularly vulnerable to this kind of cheating. But I doubt that there are many states that cheat to the extent of hiding nearly two-thirds of their entries into foster care.  Maybe everything really is bigger than Texas.

The reason all this is coming out in the open is that PCSPs now are under attack by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who wants to crack down on these kinship care placements, not because they’re off-the-books, but because two of them were the scenes of headline-grabbing horror stories.  (And, of course, nothing ever goes wrong in other Texas placements.)

So now, caseworkers are afraid to use PCSPs, and traditional foster-care placements are skyrocketing.  Soon, we may finally see an official figure on entries into foster care that is closer to reality – but thousands of children will pay the price, by losing out on the chance to stay with relatives.

There are other revelations in the “roundtable” report:

The report notes that “PCSPs are not really voluntary when the alternative is removal of the child.”  The roundtable participants also noted that, since the state doesn’t have to go to court first, “the parent does not have a lawyer or understand the child welfare or legal system.”

There’s also a truly Orwellian twist:

In theory, federal law requires states to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together before resorting to foster care. In fact, this has never been enforced and the law is full of loopholes. But Texas actually claims that, if they put a child in foster care and call it a “parental child safety placement” they’ve met the “reasonable efforts” requirement – because, supposedly, that’s not foster care.

One other point about the Roundtable and its December, 2015 report: Scott McCown, the state’s leading champion of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, served on the roundtable.  So I don’t understand why, one month after the report came out, McCown, still was repeating his claim about Texas having an unusually low rate of removal.