Texas should place more foster kids with families rather than in residential treatment, report finds

Jaime Masters, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, at an agency meeting in Austin in March. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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Texas child welfare workers should be placing more kids who are part of the state’s troubled foster care system with families instead of in residential treatment centers, a report commissioned by the Legislature has found.

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The report released this month comes as the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services continues a yearslong struggle with a backlog of children awaiting assistance.

A working group of attorneys, foster care providers, advocates and representatives from three state agencies said DFPS needs higher standards when deciding whether a child should be placed in a residential treatment center and for how long.

“Given the high level of care and the therapeutic need for [residential treatment center] placements, it is critical for courts to review whether the placement meets the child’s needs and goals and is appropriate for the child,” the working group wrote.

Under last year’s Senate Bill 1575, the state Legislature required the Children’s Commission arm of the Texas Supreme Court to establish a working group to examine the use of residential treatment centers in foster care.

Residential treatment centers are meant to be a last resort for children in the state’s care, reserved for those with histories of severe trauma caused by neglect or abuse.

The working group urged lawmakers to have courts review placements in treatment centers and qualified treatment center programs, which are higher-quality facilities. The report suggested that courts consider whether a child’s needs can be met through a placement in a family-like setting, whether the treatment center is the least restrictive environment that can meet the child’s needs and the plan to discharge the child after treatment.

“The longer that kids are stuck living in a facility instead of staying with a loving family, the harder it is for them to stay safe, heal from their trauma, and just be a kid,” Kate Murphy, a senior policy associate at Texans Care for Children, wrote in a statement in response to the report.

The Legislature should also require attorneys representing children in the foster care system to seek a child’s opinion about their placement, and require residential treatment center providers to communicate the anticipated treatment duration. The working group said increasing transparency about the plans for treatment will allow the child, and attorneys and advocates involved, to set goals for treatment and discharge.

“Allowing the child to see where they will be placed can help set expectations and address any concerns the child may have about the placement,” the report said. “Pre-placement interviews or visits should occur on a routine basis before children are placed in [a residential treatment center].”

The federal judge in a long-running lawsuit against Texas over its treatment of foster children said earlier this year that the state has not properly punished or shut down unsafe child care placement facilities, including residential treatment centers. At one state-contracted residential treatment facility, The Refuge in Bastrop, a staff member allegedly solicited and sold nude pictures of two girls in the facility’s care. The reports prompted the state to shut down The Refuge and suspend the facility’s license. But a grand jury declined to indict the accused employee.

The report comes months before lawmakers return to Austin for a new legislative session. Thousands of employees have left DFPS this year, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Disclosure: Texans Care for Children has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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