Before the Christmas holidays, a federal judge in Corpus Christi, Texas ruled that Texas’ foster care program has failed to protect children in its care and said that she would appoint a Special Master to oversee improvements to the program.
In her ruling, Judge Janis Jack blamed the state’s failure on the excessively high caseloads of the state’s foster care primary caseworkers, who according to Jack, are “tasked with ensuring the safety, permanency, and well being of foster care children” and “make life and death decisions every day.”
The high caseloads have “caused a substantial risk of serious harm to foster children,” wrote Jack.
In addition, “unmanageable caseloads” lead to a high turnover rate among caseworkers, which leads to diminished care and safety for foster children.
“Judge Jack’s decision echoes what we’ve been calling for many years. We need lower caseloads to better protect the state’s most vulnerable children,” said Myko Gedutis, assistant organizing coordinator for the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186.
Judge Jack made her ruling after hearing testimony in a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Texas’ foster children by Children’s Rights, a national children’s advocacy group.
The Children’s Rights’ suit asserts that Texas’ failure to protect its foster children violated the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. Judge Jack agreed.
The Texas foster care program is operated by the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). The agency investigates reports of child abuse.
If the investigation is substantiated, DFPS may remove the children from their homes and go to court to seek conservatorship of the children. While the children are in conservatorship, the State of Texas is responsible for their care and safety.
While in conservatorship, children may be placed in foster homes, group homes, which care for six to 12 children, or general residential homes, which care for 12 or more children.
During the trial, Judge Jack heard grim testimony from adults who had been foster care children in Texas.
In summing up their testimony, Judge Jack wrote:
Their experiences . . . paint a similar picture: children often enter foster care at the Basic service level, are assigned a carousel of overburdened caseworkers, suffer abuse and neglect that is rarely confirmed or treated, are shuttled between placements— often inappropriate for their needs—throughout the State, are migrated through schools at a rate that makes academic achievement impossible, are medicated with psychotropic drugs, and then age out of foster care at the Intense service level, damaged, institutionalized, and unable to succeed as adults.
Judge Jack also heard from experts who testified that the foster care case workers’ caseload is too high.
Dr. Viola Miller, who managed two state child welfare programs and has 40 years of experience in the field, testified that in order to keep children from falling through the cracks, caseworker caseload should range from 14 to 17 children at a time.
Judge Jack in her ruling also noted that the Child Welfare League of America, the nation’s oldest and largest child welfare organization, recommends a caseworker caseload of 12 to 15 children while the Council on Accreditation for Services to Children and Families recommends a caseload of 8 to 15 children.
But DFPS puts no limit on the size of caseloads.
In 2014, 43 percent of foster care caseworkers had caseloads of 21 children or higher.
Judge Jack wrote that caseloads were likely higher than reported because DFPS counts some workers who aren’t primary caseworkers as caseworkers.
High caseloads lead to a high caseworker turnover rate, which lead to a lack of continuity and institutional knowledge.
The turnover rate for Texas’ foster care caseworkers was 26.7 percent in 2014. Caseworker turnover in Kentucky and Tennessee for the same period was 14 percent to 15 percent and 10 percent to 12 percent respectively.
According to Judge Jack, DFPS has been aware of the problems caused by unmanageable caseloads and high turnover but has remained “deliberately indifferent.”
DFPS attempts to improve the program have been failures, wrote Jack.
One such effort, called Foster Care Redesign seeks to privatize much of the foster care case management work.
Judge Jack called Foster Care Redesign “an abject failure” and noted that “even though Foster Care Redesign may have been conceived with good intentions, it was defective and half-baked from the start.”
The judge also found that the state did not have enough staff to inspect group homes and residential care homes where most foster children live.
Judge Jack recommended changes that include among other things establishing reasonable caseloads for caseworkers and group home and residential care inspectors, hiring enough caseworkers and inspectors so that these workers can adequately perform their duties, and taking steps to lower the high turnover rate.
“Judge Jack’s ruling sends a clear message that the foster care status quo is unacceptable,” said Gedutis.
A Special Master will be appointed by January 16. The Special Master will work with DFPS on a plan to implement the judge’s recommendation and will oversee the implementation of the plan.
DFPS has 180 days after the appointment of the Special Master to present its implementation plan to the judge.
DFPS has not said whether it will appeal the judge’s ruling.