Thursday, March 24, 2016

Foster care in Texas: Could they at least stop institutionalizing 11-year-olds?

I’ve previously written about the hellscape of Texas foster care – as described by U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, who found that abuse in foster homes, group homes and institutions isn’t just common, it’s rampant.  She ordered some limited reforms, and also promised to name a “special master” to oversee reform efforts.

After the judge issued her ruling, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) apparently decided they’d get in big trouble if they kept ignoring awful conditions in so-called “residential treatment centers.”  So they suddenly pulled dozens of children out of two of them.   But, of course, they had no place else to put the children.

Here’s what happened to one child, as reported by the Dallas Morning News:

An 11-year-old girl from Tyler, who’s had at least eight placements during her nearly three years in CPS custody, was among those shuttled from [the residential treatment center in] Lubbock.
After arriving at the San Antonio shelter, “Mary” (not her real name) was taken for at least one night to a psychiatric hospital, where she was sedated, according to interviews and court documents.
Removed from her birth family nearly three years ago because of emotional and physical abuse, “she does not deal with change,” said Tyler lawyer Karen Bretzke, who represents Mary’s interests.
“When the staff changes a shift, she gets a bit agitated,” Bretzke said. “You have to keep her world as consistent as possible.”

So, let’s review.

She's 11-years-old, she can't cope with shift changes - but the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services institutionalizes her.

No doubt, DFPS would say the usual: Not enough placements, didn’t have a choice, blah, blah, blah.  That’s also the theme of the story, of course, because in Texas many journalists reflexively write off the very idea of not taking away so many children as a bizarre notion concocted by a vast right-wing conspiracy.  This may be partly a response to the fact that a could case can be made for the idea that Texas is largely run by a vast right-wing conspiracy.  But it’s still wrong, and it’s still enormously harmful to children.

This story, for example, repeatedly refers to every child removed from the home, from the moment a DFPS caseworker or law enforcement officer takes the child away, as “abused and neglected.”  In criminal justice, reporters never say that everyone arrested is a “criminal.” They wait for a court to decide.  But in child welfare, children typically are taken away and consigned to foster care for months before a court ever decides the child was, in fact “abused and neglected.” 

But just as the normal standards of due process don’t apply in child welfare systems themselves, often the normal standards of journalism often don’t apply in child welfare coverage.

Or perhaps a lot of Texas reporters just think DFPS is so brilliant, so capable and so competent that the agency could never do things such as confuse poverty with neglect.

So they write the same stories over and over and over and get the same results for vulnerable children: None.  Meanwhile, the number of Texas children torn from their families is skyrocketing, up an average of 500 per month over a year ago.  That won’t change until reporters stop ignoring the only option that works: taking away fewer children needlessly by building a system that emphasizes help to keep families together – so there’s room in good foster homes for the children who really need them.

One state that learned that lesson the hard way is New Jersey. That state also faced a class-action lawsuit.  It ended in a settlement that was notably better than what Judge Jack has ordered so far.  That’s one reason why, at one point, New Jersey significantly reduced the institutionalization of young children.  The state also curbed entries into care.  There’s almost certainly been some regression since, but the lessons still are important for Texas.  That’s because the other reason for the progress was because, for several years, the state’s child welfare agency was run by Kevin Ryan.

Judge Jack has just named Ryan one of two “special masters” overseeing her order.

No one should expect miracles.  But perhaps we can finally expect a little progress – especially if a few Texas journalists decide to stop ignoring what works.