Federal judge's 2015 ruling on foster care system having unintended consequences

Veteran foster family says they are being forced out of foster care system

SAN ANTONIO – For 12 years Wayne and Jocelyn Whitaker have opened their home to foster children, most of them infants with serious medical problems.

The Whitakers have done more than give these children a temporary home, over the years they've adopted 6 foster children, giving them a forever home.

The family is still fostering infants and toddlers, but they worry a federal judge's 2015 ruling on the state's foster care system will force them to stop.

The Whitaker's believe the judge's ruling is forcing the state to turn away good foster families at the same time they're trying to recruit more.

They are currently fostering a 2-year-old boy who has lived with them since they brought him home from a hospital when he was just 6 months old. The boy was born addicted to drugs and has serious medical needs.

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"He's severely disabled because of the cerebral palsy, because of the drug exposure and because of the premature birth," Wayne Whitaker said. "He's on a feeding tube, very seldom can take anything by mouth."

Even though they have space in their home for a second foster child they've not had any calls for placements and have been told when a permanent home is found for the little boy they won't get anymore placements.

"He's here 'til they find an adoptive home for him," Whitaker said. "It almost makes it impossible for us to get a placement because they're trying to shut down group foster homes."

Unlike a traditional foster home that can accommodate up to six kids the Whitakers fall into a category known as foster group homes, which are unique to Texas and are licensed to house between seven to 12 kids including biological and adopted children.

Because the Whitakers have six adopted kids, adding just one foster child puts them into the category that could be phased out.

Federal Judge Janis Graham Jack took aim at foster group homes in her 2015 opinion that ruled the state's foster care system unconstitutional.

Citing examples of children being physically and sexually assaulted in foster group homes by other foster children, a lack of 24-hour awake supervision and less stringent training requirements for caregivers, the judge ordered the state to "immediately stop placing children in foster group homes that lack 24-hour awake-night supervision."

She ruled homes that have 24-hour supervision could continue to operate but the Whitakers said even though they follow that requirement they stopped getting calls for placements.

Wayne believes the judge based her decision on incorrect information.

"I think the amount of abuse claims are exaggerated," Whitaker said. "I can't say this stuff doesn't happen, but I don't think its as rampant as they painted it. It was a pretty ugly picture they painted."

State Sen. Carlos Uresti said he agrees with the judge's requirement to increase supervision for foster group homes. But at the same time he and his colleagues in the Legislature try to reform foster care and build capacity he doesn't think the state should be limiting where children can be sent.

"The last thing that I want to see happen is you take a child from an unsafe environment and we put them in a worse situation," Uresti said. "The department is going to be looking at those (homes) on a case by case basis and could possibly make an exception to the rule particularly where they're a loving family. (The Whitakers have) taken in six children, they've adopted them and now they're taking care of a special needs child so I think that's certainly not what the judge is intending to prevent from happening."

Despite what Uresti has said, the Whitakers are convinced this is the last time they will be allowed to foster a child in need.

"They'll shut us down, we will be shut down. Because we can't be a group home, they won't place in group homes any more," Whitaker said. "We're not ready to stop we don't want to. We're being forced to, nothing we did wrong, our voice wasn't heard, we're being forced to stop."


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About the Author:

Tim Gerber is an investigative reporter and anchor on the KSAT Defenders team.