corpus_1_0Texas youth in foster care experienced a significant victory last Thursday when a federal court ruled that the policies and treatment of children in the state’s care “shocked the conscience” and violated among others, their Fourteenth Amendment rights “to be reasonably safe from harm while in government custody and… to receive the most appropriate care, treatment, and services.”

Judge Jack, who wrote the 260 page opinion, details the horrific and unquestionably traumatic experiences of the children who are plaintiffs in this case. For example, M.D., the named plaintiff in this case, changed placement 19 times, was arrested and placed in juvenile detention 4 times, was placed in a psychiatric hospital 11 times, and wound up in the emergency room twice because of attempted suicide. In addition, she was separated from her siblings, had over 16 caseworkers, experienced sexual abuse, and was physically restrained due to behavioral problems. It is heartbreaking that the system could have failed this child and many others in her position in so many ways.

The class of children who were represented in this lawsuit are in the Permanent Management Conservatorship (PMC) of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. PMC is a unique designation that Texas gives to children and is considered a final placement. The children who are given PMC status do not have regular hearings to determine whether there is a more permanent option for them such as adoption or reunification. As the opinion notes, this system does not reflect the findings of research and national standards set by the child welfare field. In fact, the recently enacted Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act contains a provision, which restricts states using federal funds from using the “Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement” designation for youth under the age of 16. The goal of that provision is to ensure that everything is being done to find youth in care permanent families.

The opinion also addresses a number of systemic barriers, including placement in restrictive settings, overuse of prescribing psychotropic medications, unreported abuse and not enough caseworkers to handle caseloads, all of which prevent children in care from thriving and finding permanent homes. According to the Judge, lack of appropriations from state legislators is not at issue, as they have responsive to the agency’s requests. To remedy the multiple problems, the court has ordered a number of reforms which include:

  • The appointment of an independent special master to reform the system and oversee implementation to bring the state in compliance with the constitution,
  • Establishment of a 24 hour hotline for receiving and responding to reports of abuse and neglect,
  • Improving outreach to youth who age out of care to take advantage of programs designed to help them transition,
  • Increasing efficiency of child welfare electronic filing system
  • Hiring more caseworkers and addressing the issue of high turnover in
  • Better tracking of child-on-child abuse
  • Reforming the process by which children are placed in residential facilities

This decision is significant in that it recognizes that more has to be done for children in the state’s custody, and furthermore, that they have a right to better treatment and outcomes. Often, a lack of resources is cited as the reason of why policies and procedures cannot be improved and the argument that children have basic human rights is overlooked. Although an appeal is expected, we hope this decision sends a message to other child welfare systems that the children in their care have the right to a healthy development and access to opportunities that will empower them to succeed as adults. As Judge Jack states, “Years of abuse, neglect and shuttling between inappropriate placements across the State has created a population that cannot contribute to society, and proves a continued strain on the government through welfare, incarceration, or otherwise. Although some foster children are able to overcome these obstacles, they should not have to.”

Federal court finds Texas treatment of its #fosteryouth unconstitutional: v/ @First_Focus #InvestInKids
Tweet this now.

Do you share our vision of making America a better place to be a child and raise a family? Then you should be a part of The Children’s Network, a movement led by individuals, non-profit organizations, and businesses committed to the health, education, and well-being of children in the United States.Become a part of the network and receive exclusive materials, updates, and opportunities to take action on behalf of our children. 

First Focus is a bipartisan organization dedicating to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. You can support our work by making a donation or joining The Children’s Network to receive updates and action alerts.