DALLAS (AP) — Experts chosen to overhaul the troubled Texas foster care system are recommending a series of reforms in a key report given to the court Friday, including phasing out placements that had allowed up to 12 children in a single home and reducing the turnover of caseworkers.
U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack in December declared the state foster care system unconstitutionally flawed and ordered the independent overhaul. She then appointed the special masters, who started work on a reform plan.READ MORE: Fort Worth Police Investigating After Man Shot At 7-Eleven Store
The broken foster care system is one of two child welfare crises facing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Figures released in October showed thousands of kids at high risk for abuse who are not promptly visited by child investigators, a problem that has not abated despite Gov. Greg Abbott installing new leadership in April.
The wide-ranging report now in Jack’s hands only focuses on the foster system, which the judge has said often leaves children labeled permanent wards of the state more badly damaged than when they entered. Among the suggested reforms are drastically reducing caseloads, requiring caseworkers to meet privately with children and developing a plan to aim to place children who have been sexually abused in homes by themselves.
“The scope of the recommendations reflects how badly broken the system is and they all fit together as part of an overall plan,” said Paul Yetter, lead attorney in the lawsuit filed in 2011 by the New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights along with Texas law firms.
Texas has been fighting the court-ordered reforms and reiterated that position Friday.
“Sweeping changes to the state’s foster care system should come from state officials, not from unelected federal judges or their appointed special masters,” said Marc Rylander, a spokesman for Texas attorney general’s office.
Meanwhile, a statement from the state child welfare agency said the special masters’ report “highlights many of the issues we are working on day and night.”READ MORE: Severe Weather Threat For North Texas Tuesday Night, Early Wednesday Morning
Jack will now review the recommendations, which the report says are made with respect to children with the permanent label and those assigned to them.
The class-action lawsuit against the state was filed on behalf the children who are labeled permanent wards of the state, which can happen as quickly as a year after a child enters foster care. According to the state child welfare agency, the latest numbers show that almost 11,000 of the almost 31,000 children in foster care have the permanent label.
Jack had directed the special masters to address a variety of issues. Among those was Texas’ creation of “foster group homes,” which allowed for a total of 12 children, including the caregivers’ own, in such homes. Jack called them “a hybrid” that provided “fewer benefits” than traditional foster homes that allow for a total of six children. Jack said the sexual assault of and by foster children was a special problem in the foster group homes.
The special masters, Kevin Ryan and Francis McGovern, recommend that those homes eventually cease to exist, converting to either traditional foster homes or group facilities.
The report also addressed child-on-child sex abuse in foster care, recommending that all reports of sexual abuse by a child against a child be investigated and that case records prominently say if a child has exhibited sexually aggressive behavior or if they’ve been sexually abused.
The special masters also called for reducing caseworker turnover — which according to the state child welfare agency was at almost 23 percent last year for caseworkers working with foster kids. The report recommends caseloads for those serving children in the system long-term to be between 14 and 17. In the last fiscal year, the caseload average for caseworkers was at about 30.
Kate Murphy of the group Texans Care for Children said in a statement that they thought the special masters’ report was “by and large on the right track,” but said it’s important to remember it’s focused on a certain group of children and not the entire system.MORE NEWS: Some Tenants Say Conditions At Dallas' Highland Hills Apartments Still Unlivable Following Explosion
“There will be much more to do to fulfill our moral obligation,” Murphy said.