Analysis: Texas candidates’ silence allows persistent foster care problems to fester

Portraits of adoptable children are on display at the Child Protective Services office at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in Austin. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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Unconventional Wisdom - April 11, 2022

Few candidates run for Texas political office on a platform of making things better for kids who need good homes, or who need to flee abuse or neglect.

Candidates hardly ever talk about improving the safety net for kids — unless the holes in the safety net have become big enough to get the attention of voters.

That’s why the problems with the state’s foster care program fester the way they do: Politicians can win more points doing other things, and they don’t get blamed, most of the time, when the programs don’t work the way they should.

Not everyone in the elected world ignores safety-net agencies and issues, but it’s not a top-of-mind issue for many of them. That’s one reason the federal litigation on the state’s child welfare system is 11 years old. Kids who were 8 years old when that started have aged out of the system; those who were babies at the start are getting close to the end of elementary school.

They’ve lost years.

The drumbeat of bad news just keeps coming. A state-licensed shelter for victims of sex trafficking is under investigation of distributing pornography and of trafficking the victims it is supposed to protect. U.S. District Judge Janis Jack has so little confidence in the state that she asked federal investigators to step in to check the work of the Texas Rangers.

She’s been leaning on the state for a long time to get its foster care program in order; the problems at that center became public not because of the state investigation, but in her courtroom.

She’s also poking the state — again — about unlicensed placements, where foster children spend nights in hotels or state offices. She’s called on the state to spend some of its swollen reserves and to stop saying it can’t take care of kids because of funding problems.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar has told Texas leaders that they’ll start the next legislative session in January with $12 billion to $13 billion in surplus funds and a like amount in the so-called rainy day fund.

Jack has blasted the state for putting Texas kids in inadequate and unsafe out-of-state facilities when the Texas system was out of space. The judge’s appointed monitors are watching, reporting back to the judge, getting the state called in for explanations and solutions, in a repeating cycle of findings and scoldings and orders for remedy that has lasted for a decade.

Still, you don’t hear a lot about it on the campaign trail, outside of challengers sometimes attempting to lay blame for the busted system at the feet of incumbents.

It’s hard to explain why it’s not a campaign issue, or a big concern for voters, but it isn’t hard to see that the Department of Family and Protective Services isn’t gaining ground — and isn’t getting any help from the elected officials who have the power to improve the program — or even to make it a model for other states.

Instead, the judge threatened at the beginning of the year to hold the state in contempt for a third time for not taking care of reforms she ordered two years ago.

“It looks like we’re just going from bad to worse,” she said at the time, in a hearing that followed the release of a report from those court-appointed monitors.

In a report obtained by The Texas Tribune’s Reese Oxner this month, DFPS said more than 100 children have died since 2020 while in the state’s child welfare system, a small percentage of the kids in the system, but still an appalling toll. “Since 2020, six children died by drowning. Six children died by suicide. One child died this year from a gunshot wound during a pursuit by law enforcement. Three died from physical violence after running away from Child Protective Services,” he reported.

Protecting Texans is one of the state government’s fundamental roles. That’s a line you’ll hear on the campaign trail every year, when politicians are talking about crime and immigration, electric grids and highways.

Somehow, taking care of those imperiled Texas children never seems to make it into the stump speeches of vote-seeking politicians. The federal lawsuit has been going for about five-and-a-half election cycles. You’d think we’d have heard something from the ruling class by now.

For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

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