Lawyers representing children in federal foster care lawsuit rebuked for hiring lobbyists

Portraits of adoptable children on display at the Child Protective Services office at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in Austin in 2019. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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In response to rebuke from lawmakers, the lawyers representing Texas foster care children in an ongoing federal lawsuit against the state have suspended lobbying services this legislative session.

The lawyers had hired five lobbyists to push for state funds to be allotted toward updating the Department of Family and Protective Services’ technology system and for increasing pay for kinship caregivers.

These lobbyists would have been paid a total of $20,000 a month for the entirety of the legislative session using money awarded in court. Among the lobbyists hired was Albert Hawkins, former executive commissioner of the Health and Human Services Commission and an original defendant in the lawsuit.

But key lawmakers and the federal judge overseeing the case have balked at the hiring of lobbyists.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst raised concerns Thursday about the lawyers in the federal lawsuit hiring independent lobbyists. Kolkhorst is the chair of the Senate House and Human Services Committee this session.

“This is an alarming practice and it begs the question of what their role and intentions are going forward,” Kolkhorst said in a written statement. “These revelations give the appearance of blurred lines between the court monitors, the federal judge and the attorneys representing the children in this case.”

State Rep. James Frank, the chair of the House Human Services Committee, has also questioned the federal lawsuit for years, saying the significant amount of state funds covering court fees could have been redirected to DFPS services. Frank told The Dallas Morning News that “the shakedown continues — professional level, now.”

“The decision to suspend the lobbying effort was made after we learned about the reaction of Chair Frank and Chair Kolkhorst,” said Kelly Darby, a spokesperson for Paul Yetter, the lead attorney on the case. “Our goal — our only goal — has always been to support and help the state get the system right to where children are not being harmed, they’re being cared for.”

Any funds already paid to the lobbyists will be reimbursed by Yetter, she said.

Nearly a decade ago, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack declared that Texas foster kids were leaving state care more damaged than when they entered. Jack has ordered a long list of reforms: Hire more caseworkers, stop placing children in unsafe settings, track child-on-child abuse. She also appointed court monitors to track the state’s compliance.

The lawsuit has come with a hefty price tag. DFPS and the Health and Human Services Commission have paid at least $41.3 million to the court monitors since they were appointed in 2019. DFPS has seven full-time employees, non-attorneys with a combined annual salary of $559,544 in 2023, dedicated to working on the federal lawsuit. The lawyers representing the children have also received nearly $6 million in court fees.

Yetter said that he and the other attorneys representing the children in the case have worked for free. The legal fees awarded have been put in a trust account for the state’s children. Yetter previously offered to put the trust funds toward a new technology system but said the state never responded.

“We had hoped to partner with the state agencies at the legislature to get the funding needed for a safe system,” Yetter said in a written statement. “There are critical reforms waiting to be done, and all we hear from the state is, ‘We don’t have the money.’”

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