Fifth Circuit tells Texas to fix foster care system, removes other requirements


AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals says Texas will have to follow through with some fixes to its foster care system, but it also removed other requirements previously set by a federal district judge. 

The lawsuit over Texas’ foster care system has spanned several years and has drawn attention to stories of abuse, neglect and mounting caseload sizes. 

“Everybody admitted there was a problem,” Will Francis, government relations director with the Texas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said. “[The Department of Family and Protective Services] knew there was a problem, kids in care knew there was a problem and yet the state sort of dug in their heels and said we don’t want a federal judge telling us what to do.” 

The Fifth Circuit kept a requirement where a licensed foster care home with more than six kids must have 24-hour supervision. DFPS must also design and conduct workload studies.  

However, the state won’t have to create an “integrated computer system” with a child’s “complete records, including, but not limited to a complete migration of all medical, dental, educational, placement recommendations, court records, mental health and caseworker records.”  

“The multimillion-dollar computer-system overhaul – while maybe a best practice – goes well beyond what is minimally required to remedy the caseload and oversight violations,” Judge Edith Brown Clement said. 

“An integrated computer system, which at most two other states use, cannot represent the constitutional floor for recordkeeping,” she added. 

Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote a partially dissenting opinion related to the “integrated computer system.” 

“The decision to vacate the integrated computer system provisions is misguided,” Higginbotham wrote.” 

He cited the December 2015 liability opinion where the district court attributed an “epidemic of physical and sexual abuse to, among other factors, DFPS’s organizational and administrative chaos” and pointed to ongoing issues of recordkeeping. 

“Information deficiencies play a large role in DFPS’s inability to protect [permanent management conservatorship] children from abuse and neglect,” he wrote. “The district court has so found on a full record. It follows that an integrated computer system is no mere ‘best practice.’ It is an appropriate and necessary part of an injunction narrowly tailored to address caseworker workloads and deficient monitoring.” 

The Fifth Circuit also vacated a provision for monthly in-person visits with primary caseworkers. 

“We are encouraged that the Fifth Circuit recognized several key aspects of the district court’s order were an abuse of discretion,” Marc Rylander, director of communications for the Texas Attorney General’s office, said. These rulings would have cost taxpayers many millions of dollars and were not necessary to remedy any constitutional violation. We applaud the Fifth Circuit for rolling back this significant judicial overreach by the district court.”

Rylander said the attorney general’s office is still reviewing the decision and considering whether further action is needed to challenge portions that the Fifth Circuit didn’t reverse.

Francis said over the years, the lawsuit turned into a back and forth over what things should cost. He also pointed out that during this past legislative session, lawmakers didn’t set aside funding for DFPS to appropriately respond to this lawsuit. 

“What the Fifth Circuit has now come up with, DFPS is now going to have to respond to with their own resources,” he said. “Sort of an indicator, once again, of how forgotten some of these kids are.” 

Several bills this session did aim to help kids in foster care. House Bill 475, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, requires DFPS to provide youth in foster care who are pregnant or minor parents with information on and support in providing safe environments for children.  

Support the youth in foster care need

SAFE Children’s Shelter has emergency care, residential programs for young adults aging out of the foster care system as well as a program for pregnant and parenting teens in the foster care system with their kids.  

Bedroom at the SAFE Children’s Shelter. (Courtesy: SAFE Children’s Shelter)

“We really find that the biggest need is connection – healthy connection with adults who are trustworthy, who can do fun activities with them, who can provide them with the structure and supervision that they need so they can just be kids,” Aja Gair, senior director of youth residential services, said. 

The program serves youth of all ages and has an alumni services program. Gair says staff at the shelter try to act as mentors. 

“A lot of youth have either had to fill a parental role in their family or they haven’t gotten always the care and attention that they needed and so our job is to give them that security, hopefully help them feel safe while they’re here and get them on towards the next step in their journey,” she said. 

Gair says funding is critical to help youth in the child welfare system and the agencies and organizations that support them. 

“If we’re going to do right by youth, we need to invest in that system,” she said. 

To report suspected abuse, neglect, or exploitation of children, the elderly, or people with disabilities, call 1-800-252-5400 or visit txabusehotline.org. 

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