A federal judge in Texas slapped a $50,000-a-day fine on the state for failing to protect children in foster care. A lawsuit claims the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) suffers from overburdened caseworkers and lack of oversight, resulting in children who leave the system and go into homelessness, poverty, and worse.
In 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack found the state’s foster care system so rife with abuse that it violated children’s civil right to be safe from harm while in government custody. She ordered Texas to make reforms such as studying caseworkers’ workloads, hiring more caseworkers and reducing their turnover rates, and setting requirements for how often caseworkers must visit children.
The state appealed and managed to get some of Jack’s orders overturned. In July, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the state had to begin implementing the remaining reforms. By early October, Jack threatened to hold the government in contempt of court for continuing to drag its feet, saying DFPS was not cooperating with the monitors Jack assigned to track the agency’s progress. On Nov. 5, the judge decided enough was enough and levied the $50,000 a day fine for each day the state failed to guarantee sufficient supervision for group foster homes. That amount is set to go up to $100,000 a day later this month if the state doesn’t prove to the court’s monitors that the changes are moving forward.
“I cannot find DFPS to be credible at any level,” Jack said. “I am going to have to rely on the monitors for everything.”
Her original decision painted a bleak picture of a system in which “foster children often age out of care more damaged than when they entered,” and, as adults, place “a continued strain on the government through welfare, incarceration, or otherwise.” Much of the problem comes from what the 5th Circuit judges called “crushing” caseloads on caseworkers in charge of coordinating foster children’s care. According to court documents in the case, professional consensus says a caseworker can handle a maximum of 15-20 cases at a time, and many recommend fewer than that. But the court found that 43 percent of DFPS caseworkers had more than 20 cases, and 9 percent had more than 30. Caseworker burnout results in a high turnover rate, so a child may have multiple caseworkers while in the system.
In court, DPFS argued that caseloads did not have a measurable effect on children’s long-term outcomes. But foster parents say otherwise. Kelly Stanley, a social worker and former foster parent from Waco, Texas, said she had positive experiences with some caseworkers and volunteers, but those assigned to her foster children had high turnover rates. DPFS fired the second of three caseworkers for one of her children after Stanley reported that she regularly missed the required monthly visits to her home. “She was clearly falling apart,” Stanley said.
The situation came to a head as the Stanleys were preparing to sign adoption papers. Stanley said their caseworker walked into the courtroom and explained they couldn’t adopt the boy who had been living in the home for a year because they had served the release papers to the wrong person. Instead of delivering them to the boy’s father, they delivered them to a man in the same jail with the same name. Two months later, the state returned the boy to his father, who by then was on probation.
Stanley and her husband, a youth pastor at a Baptist church, are no longer foster parents, though they hope to be again someday. She said many people say they feel like they can’t foster because it’s too hard to take in children who may leave. “I don’t think people realize the reason we’re not doing this again is not because we don’t want to—it’s because we emotionally can’t handle the chaos and the trauma that they have put us through,” she said. “It’s not just the children who come to us who are traumatized.”