By Ted Oberg and Sarah Rafique
HOUSTON (KTRK) — During the start of a hearing into the state’s troubled foster care system, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack admonished the state for blaming children for turning down placements and the courts for heightened monitoring of facilities as reasons for why some abused and neglected children in the state’s care are sleeping in offices or motels instead of housed at licensed facilities.
“You have known for decades about the capacity crisis in the state for foster care children and (have) not planned accordingly,” Jack said during Tuesday’s hearing as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the state.
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters, who oversees the state’s Child Protective Services, told the judge, “Anything I offer will sound like an excuse.”
Jack interjected, saying “Yes, it will.”
“I’m sure you have multiple excuses, but I guess I don’t want to hear them right now,” Jack said, as she turned the questioning over to attorney Paul Yetter, who represents thousands of Texas foster care children in a class action lawsuit against the state.
The decade-long 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.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Jack described a foster care child who has been in 20 different placements, including at four facilities that have since closed due to safety issues. She talked about another child, an honor student, who entered the state’s foster system with basic needs, but has since required five psychiatric hospitalizations.
Those were just two of the dozens of examples Jack referenced from the latest monitoring report released this week, ahead of the hearing.
“I have all these in front of me. I could read for another two hours,” Jack said about the profiles of children in the state’s foster care system. “These children came into your care, many of them with basic needs, they are now in psychiatric treatment. These are the children in CWOP.”
CWOP stands for child without a placement and are children who end up sleeping in Child Protective Services offices, hotels, motels or other government offices due to lack of other housing options.
According to the state’s latest report, 161 of the 28,943 children in the state’s child welfare system are considered children without placement, or pending appropriate placement as of September 7.
RELATED: 13 Investigates: Teen shot after sneaking out, another ‘sleeping off a hangover’ under CPS’s care 13 Investigates reported last week about one teen in CWOP who snuck out of an unlicensed facility and got shot while allegedly attempting a carjacking.
Our investigation found that despite assurances from the state and court orders to stop other children from living in CPS offices, Texas is still shuffling kids from one unlicensed facility to the next under the watchful eye of what insiders tell us are overworked and at times undertrained and underequipped CPS staff.
The state’s argument is that children in CWOP are not subject to the court orders and continue to be placed in offices or hotels, to which Jack asked, “You don’t feel ashamed of yourself for making this argument? Even a little bit?”
In addition to children sleeping in unlicensed facilities, Yetter said there are concerns about the training that staff receive. Because the children in offices or hotels require 24/7 supervision, caseworkers and other CPS staff are working overtime around-the-clock to keep an eye on them, but they don’t all have the training needed to deal with high-risk children.
Masters confirmed staff members on 24/7 watch have little specialized training and watch just a 60-minute video before helping oversee the children in CWOP.
Despite not having seen the 1-hour training video herself, Masters said the training is “helpful to an extent, but definitely not adequate.”
She admits staff overseeing the children, and the CWOP facilities themselves, are not always suited to keep high needs children safe.
“It is the state’s job to have safe placements for these children, isn’t it,” Yetter asked Masters. “You are failing these children without placements by not putting them in a safe place to live.”
When Yetter asked Masters if the state is failing children without placement, she refused to put the blame on the state and her agency and instead took personal responsibility for the shortcomings.
“I do feel like I am failing the children,” Masters said. “I am failing these children.”
She said the state is using every resource available to lessen the burden on caseworkers while they try to get the children out of the offices and into traditional placements in licensed facilities.
She said the state is reaching out to providers who are licensed but who are not serving any children right now to see what can be done there.
Masters said the reason children are put in CWOP is because they “have exhausted every option that we have for placement.”
“It does not appear that we have built the type of placements that we need,” Masters said.
Masters was before lawmakers last month asking for more funding, which she told Jack could help increase placements.
When asked for more specifics on how the state is increasing the number of placements and ensuring staff receive better training, the judge wasn’t pleased with the lack of specifics.
“You’ve not done anything that I can see constructive about placements,” and finding placements for the children who are sleeping in offices or hotels, Jack said.
Although she acknowledged Masters became commissioner just a few years ago, Jack said the issue has been ongoing for a decade without any real solutions.
“Nothing has come of this in all the years we have been dealing with this case,” Jack said.
Although it was originally expected to be a two-day hearing, Jack ended it after about three hours. She recommended that DFPS and Texas Health and Human Services Commission meet alongside the court-appointed monitors and Yetter – with the governor’s blessing – to work collaboratively and come up with better solutions.
“We’re cautiously optimistic. The safety of these children is our top priority, and right now everyone agrees that they are in dangerous, harmful placements,” Yetter said in a statement. “The prospect of working together on a real solution, especially with the blessing of the Governor, is the best path forward. I look forward to getting started as soon as possible.”
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