SAN ANTONIO – It’s been described as a broken system. And for years, efforts to fix foster care in Texas have fallen short. One advocate describes those efforts as “trying to put saran wrap over a fire hydrant.”
There are more than 15,000 children currently in the Texas foster care system — kids who have been abused, neglected and removed from their homes. Sometimes the kids thrust into the state’s care are left with nowhere to go and end up sleeping in offices. It’s happening across the state, but the problem is particularly bad in Bexar County.
In 2020, San Antonio’s Bexar County had 4,990 kids in care, the highest number in Texas.
This issue isn’t a new one. In fact, KSAT took on the topic in a 2017 Defenders special. And years later, many of those same problems persist. The debut of Family Tapestry and a new way of working with foster kids in Bexar County was supposed to be a solution. But the recent fallout with that nonprofit has made a complicated issue even more complex.
In this episode of KSAT Explains, we examined what went wrong with Family Tapestry, how the Texas foster care system is supposed to work and what each of us can do to help.
(Watch the full episode on demand in the video player above.)
Watch the video below to hear from those who have personal experience with the foster care system.
How the system works (or doesn’t)
Before you can understand what has gone wrong with the system, you first have to understand how it works. It typically starts with a report of child abuse or neglect. This can be an outcry from a teacher, doctor or maybe even law enforcement. These reports are filed through the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) abuse hotline.
If the DFPS investigation finds the allegations of abuse or neglect to be credible, the investigator presents their findings to a judge to get a court order for the child to be removed from their home.
As soon as the court order for removal is signed, Child Protective Services (CPS) take the child into state custody. At this point, the child is assigned a CPS caseworker and an attorney ad litem. The job of the attorney is to represent the child in court. The caseworker is the point person for everyone involved: children, parents, family members, teachers and foster parents. They look out for the child’s best interests.
For years, critics have pointed to overburdened CPS caseworkers as one of the system’s flaws. According to state data, the average daily caseload is more than 24 cases per worker. That’s notably higher than the recommended number of between 14 to 17.
CPS declined KSAT’s interview request, but they released a statement about how the system works, saying that the first effort is to place the child with relatives and keep them out of foster care. If a blood relative isn’t an option, CPS or a nonprofit may try to find another family-like setting, such as a licensed foster home, or a friend or acquaintance.
“When all of that is not possible, what may happen is that we put them in a placement that’s called a GRO: general residential operation,” said Linda Garcia, Senior Vice President of 2INgage, the nonprofit contractor that handles foster care services for Texas’ Region 2, a portion of the state that covers 30 counties in the Abilene area.
General residential operations are group settings that provide round-the-clock care. Kids in need of extra medical care for mental health or substance abuse issues, perhaps, may end up at a residential treatment center.
“All of us go through something different,” former foster Robyn Parker said in an interview. “Some of the girls that I was in foster homes with are in vastly different situations in their life, even though we went through a similar thing.”
Parker spent years in foster care before aging out when she turned 19. Up until this summer, she worked as a program outreach coordinator with THRU Project, a nonprofit dedicated to providing support to foster youth as they age out of the system.
At the end of the day, the main priority is to make sure the child is in a safe situation. And if possible, help parents get their children back. Several programs affiliated with foster care aim to train and educate parents to help them do that.
“That’s ultimately the number one goal,” Garcia said. “To reunify the families with their children.”
If safely reuniting families isn’t possible, the next step is to find a permanent home for the child, in the hopes of avoiding bouncing them around from place to place. But all too often, that’s exactly what happens.
“We rarely get anyone in here that’s been in less than 10 [homes],” THRU Project CEO and co-founder Elaine Andries Hartle said. “I think I’ve met one youth that’s had one or two placements.”
It’s a problem with the system that Michelle Calleros is very familiar with. Calleros is a student and mentor at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. She’s also currently in extended foster care, a program that allows some young adults to remain in foster care until they turn 21.
“Wherever there’s a bed open is where you’re probably going to go,” Calleros said. “It’s so overcrowded. Sometimes you have to sleep in the CPS office.” Calleros remembers the problems that existed at the group home facilities where she was placed.
“Anything that I ever had that was valuable, any nice clothes, nice shoes, jewelry or anything that was from my family that I would never be able to replace, I always kept locked up in my caseworker’s office,” Calleros said.
System ruled unconstitutional in 2011
Calleros and Parker are far from alone when it comes to kids in foster care recognizing problems. In fact, in 2011, a child advocacy group sued the state on behalf of nine Texas foster children.
That lawsuit alleged the system had failed to protect children in foster care from an unreasonable risk of harm. And in 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack ruled in favor of the children, finding the system unconstitutional.
Jack blasted the state for running a system where, she wrote, “rape, abuse and instability are the norm,” and where children “almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered.”
Jack ordered all foster group homes that were operating without 24-hour adult supervision to be shut down. She also ordered that two child welfare experts, known as special masters, work with DFPS to develop a plan to address the issues raised in the case.
In 2016, the appointed special masters released a report with dozens of recommendations to improve the foster care system. But the state objected to those recommendations because state leaders said the 2017 Texas Legislature was already taking significant action to improve the system. During the session, lawmakers enacted a number of high-priority bills focused on the state’s foster care system, including authorizing community-based care.
In Jan. 2018, Judge Jack issued another order that included sweeping changes to policies, systems and staffing. It would have required the state to make nearly 100 changes to the system and the way it cares for children. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately appealed the order, calling it impractical.
What followed was a series of back-and-forth lawsuits that ultimately led to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturning some of Jack’s mandates. While some requirements were upheld, there are still questions about whether this type of state oversight is the best way to move forward. It’s been a nearly decade-long battle with no clear end in sight.
“Everybody’s being looked over by a federal court in South Texas,” said Judge Peter Sakai, who oversees the 225th District Court and the Bexar County Children’s Court. “So there’s a tremendous amount of scrutiny which is causing a lot of placements to close down.”
Creation of Family Tapestry in Bexar County
Moving the Texas foster care system to community-based care, or CBC, was supposed to be a solution. It was a plan approved by lawmakers to move away from a one-size-fits-all model and toward a privatized, more focused approach. The legislation requires the state to contract with regional nonprofits to care for foster children.
“The needs in El Paso are different from the needs in Houston and Lubbock and San Antonio,” SJRC Texas CEO Tara Roussett said. “It’s really the state’s way to fix the foster care system and partner with local community providers.”
But the move to privatize the state’s foster care system wasn’t without controversy. One of the major concerns was a fear that stories of abuse and neglect of children would go unheard.
The idea of CBC is that once the child is removed from their parents’ custody, instead of being in the care of the state, they would be in the care of the CBC provider for their region. The goal of each CBC is to eventually do what CPS does: foster care case management, placement and reunification services.
Using this model, the nonprofit is tasked with creating a network of local foster placement agencies that work directly with foster families and group facilities to find each child a bed.
Under community-based care, the state will eventually be divided into 16 regions. Five have rolled out CBC so far. The rollout is done in three phases, and no region has yet to complete the transition.
Region 8A encompasses Bexar County. Family Tapestry, a division of the Children’s Shelter in San Antonio, was awarded the state contract for this region in 2018. There was a lot of excitement about this new localized approach. But by the spring of 2021, the state’s deal with Family Tapestry unraveled.
Still, the state is pushing forward with expansion. SJRC Texas, a nonprofit that has served the San Antonio area for 37 years, was awarded a CBC contract in April 2021. Their new division is called Belong and will oversee Region 8B - 27 counties in South Texas surrounding Bexar County.
SJRC Texas currently has about 110 kids across their program today in residential and community foster care. With the new expansion, they’ll be in charge of 675.
Pros and cons of a localized approach
Meanwhile, Region 2 in North Texas has made it through its first full year of Stage 2 of its CBC rollout. 2INGage is responsible for about 800 kids across its 30-county region. Linda Garcia says there are benefits to focusing only on services for a small region.
“It’s easier to develop those services for just a small population, instead of having to develop services for the whole state,” Garcia said.
But Garcia acknowledges that the implementation of CBC has been challenging. For example, finding the best placement for a child within the required seven-hour period. 2INGage has also struggled with meeting a specific performance goal set by DFPS: placing children within a 50-mile radius of their home.
“If you look at my rural area, it stretches 250 miles from one direction to the other,” Garcia said. “If we remove a child in Wichita Falls and place them in Abilene, it’s still in my area, but I’m not meeting my performance goals.”
DFPS describes community-based care as a “better way to provide services than traditional foster care”. But some remain skeptical about whether it’s truly working.
“I loved the idea of community-based care. I still think it could work,” Hartle said. “But it is a huge machine and community-based care takes the entire community.”
What’s gone wrong
Disturbing details in this section are graphic in nature and may not be suitable for all readers.
Enmeshed in the statewide foster care capacity crisis is the all-out collapse of community-based care in San Antonio. In May, Family Tapestry terminated its contract with the state. It was the culmination of weeks of continuous bad publicity for the Children’s Shelter.
One of the most glaring problems with foster care in Texas is the number of children who have nowhere to go once they’re in the system.
They are called children without placement, or CWOP. They are mostly teenagers, and anywhere from 30 to 60 have been living and sleeping in CPS offices around San Antonio at any given time recently.
“You are talking about kids who have grown up in very harsh environments, under extreme circumstances, abuse, neglect, who really need help,” said a former Children’s Shelter employee who asked that KSAT conceal his identity for fear of not being rehired as a counselor.
After the facility was ordered to find placements for all of its kids in late April and close, he was among the dozens of staffers assigned to its emergency shelter who were laid off.
In a letter sent to Children’s Shelter CEO Annette Rodriguez, the commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services called the situation unacceptable and said it threatened the safety of the children.
Among the problems laid out, it was alleged that six children, all under the age of 10, engaged in sexual contact under their beds at the shelter, while a staffer was assisting other kids. The ex-employee who spoke to KSAT recalled an incident more recently, when a 12-year-old girl was sexually assaulted after she and two teens slipped away from staff.
Even after it was reported to police, the two teens remained at the shelter and were among the last to be placed elsewhere. Children’s Shelter President and CEO Annette Rodriguez did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
TikTok sheds light on issues
More issues with the shelter — and with the state’s struggling foster care system as a whole — have been brought into light thanks in part to TikTok.
Shannon Ivey, a foster care advocate and foster-to-adopt parent, said she first joined the social media site during the pandemic for her work as a college professor. She quickly amassed more than 57,000 followers and well over half a million likes.
Ivey’s popularity is fueled by the unabashed language she uses when talking about the system. Her account has also become a safe space of sorts for former Children’s Shelter employees to describe their experiences while working there.
“At the end of the day, people do want to help,” Ivey said. “They just see this monolith of a problem and they don’t know what to do.”
With Family Tapestry out of the picture, DFPS is back in charge of foster care in Bexar County. DFPS has said there will be no disruption of services, but it’s too soon to say if and when they will try to shift Bexar County back to a community-based care model.
While the Children’s Shelter has been a frequent target of critics of the state’s attempted move to privatize foster care, it is far from the only problem in San Antonio. In the last year, Texas has lost 1,000 foster care beds due to voluntary and involuntary closures of placement facilities. Nearly half of those beds are in Bexar County.
Residential Treatment Centers, or RTCs, which often provide care to the most challenging youth, have been closing here at an alarming rate.
“Kids were getting hurt. Nobody was taking any type of blame for that,” said Sondra Ajasin, CEO and founder of TruLight 127 Ministries. “I truly believe somebody should have stepped in a long time ago and said enough’s enough.”
While RTCs have racked up their fair share of troubling abuse and neglect incidents, some foster care advocates also blame the closures of Residential Treatment Centers on new rules and requirements put in place as a result of the 2011 lawsuit. There are more requirements for staff and training, yet not enough funding offered to make it possible.
Looking for solutions
Of course, the end of the state’s contract with Family Tapestry did not mean the end of children being abused, neglected and removed from their homes in Bexar County. While the fallout runs course, kids’ lives are still being upended. And foster agencies and advocates have never stopped working to try to find placements for those children. All while not knowing what will come next for the system.
“I’ve never been more fearful for kids’ lives as I am right now in the state of Texas,” Ajasin said. “It’s bad and nobody has a plan and everybody’s just scrambling.”
In 2015 Ajasin had her own plan. After working as a CPS investigator for three years, she felt foster children had no choice. So she started TruLight 127 Ministries in her own garage.
In the years since, her foster agency has grown bigger than she ever expected. Her program now includes TruLight Youth Village, an emergency shelter that spans 10 acres in Seguin and Guadalupe Counties. The campus has four houses that are home to 35 foster children. Each house is staffed by adults 24/7, with at least one adult awake at all times - that’s one of the new requirements as a result of the 2011 lawsuit.
“A lot of them end up staying here for several months,” Ajasin said. “We’re great, but we’re not a foster home.”
Just a few miles down the road sits Ivey Family Farms, also located in Seguin. For about a year, Shannon Ivey and her family have been hosting foster kids on their farm on weekends. The farm provides an escape from their therapies, uncertainties and frustrations.
“Our whole goal when they come out here is for them just to be kids because they have been through the institution over and over and over again,” Ivey said.
Ivey and her husband got the idea to start a care farm after seeing the difference it made for their own kids who have multiple health diagnoses. These two women are working to improve the lives of foster children in their own ways. Their thoughts on solutions share common ground.
Both Ivey and Ajasin say communication needs to improve: adults need to listen to what children in care say they need, and all the departments involved in the complicated foster care system need to communicate with each other more effectively.
Both women also say funding is lacking, especially for the children who need the most intense level of care in Residential Treatment Centers. But state funding often gets tied up in politics, another reason why it’s critical to make solutions personal. Ivey and Ajasin say we can all do out part.
“We need people to look at what they can give and know that that’s enough,” Ivey said.