AUSTIN (KXAN) — Less children in Texas are spending nights in unregulated places while waiting for foster placement, according to a new report.
The report marks the latest released by the court monitors, who were appointed to track the progress made by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services during a years-long federal lawsuit over the treatment of children in the agency’s care.
The monitors most recent update noted other improvements made in the last year, including more manageable caseloads for DFPS employees and more accurate investigations.
The update comes ahead of a hearing on Friday in U.S. District Judge Janis Jack’s courtroom. In 2015, Judge Jack ruled that Texas had violated the constitutional rights of foster children by placing them in unsafe homes and residential treatment facilities. She issued a list of reforms, and since then, has found the state in contempt multiple times for not meeting those ordered reforms.
By 2021, the system faced more criticism after it was discovered hundreds of children had spent time sleeping in state office buildings, hotels and other unregulated places because DFPS had no available beds in foster homes or treatment facilities to place them — also known as Children Without Placement, or CWOP.
According to the monitors’ most recent update, an average of 60 children were without placement on a given night from January 1, 2022 through November 30, 2022. On June 20 that year, 81 children were without placement — the maximum this year. From July to December 2021, the average was 86 children — but some nights saw far more, even after lawmakers prohibited overnight stays in DFPS offices in June of that year.
DFPS has called CWOP the “last resort” but cited a shortage of beds at foster providers — particularly for kids with complex medical or behavioral needs — as the reason for having to utilize it. A September 2021 DFPS report blames the pandemic, stricter regulations and heightened monitoring under the federal lawsuit as the reason providers stopped offering placements, or even shut their doors entirely. The same report claimed some children had been offered placements but either refused treatment or were placed on waitlists.
At a tense hearing that same month, the judge told former DFPS Commissioner Jamie Masters, “I’ll remind you, the state has closed these facilities because they were not safe…I’ve watched your PR campaign that the court, COVID and, most egregiously, these children in your care are to blame.”
Governor Greg Abbott appointed new leadership at DFPS shortly after.
Stephanie Muth assumed the role of Commissioner this year, while Anne Heiligenstein returned as a Senior Adviser at the agency.
The latest report, while optimistic about the recent improvements, still highlights some shortcomings of the system, such as an increase in wait times for people trying to report abuse and neglect to DFPS, or any child spending any amount of time without proper placement.
KXAN’s Avery Travis will be following Friday’s hearing and will update this article with more information.