AUSTIN, Texas —
Nearly a decade after a lawsuit was filed against the State of Texas for failing to protect the safety of children in foster care, on Friday, plaintiffs for the children filed a contempt motion to address the “glaring safety risks” in the system.
The motion stated that ongoing issues have put children at significant risk for abuse and neglect.
"While the state simply refuses to reform its system, innocent children are dying, being needlessly hurt, and remain at serious risk of harm," the motion stated.
This is exemplified by the deaths of three children in the state's long-term care just this year, according to a new independent monitor's report released in June just a few weeks prior to this motion.
In 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack found that the system was still violating the constitutional rights of children living in permanent state care.
In 2018, after continued failures, she ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to undergo an extensive list of reforms and appointed two independent monitors to the task of ensuring DFPS followed through. After their initial findings they reported to Jack in November 2019, she held the state in contempt of court for failing to comply with her orders.
Now, almost 10 years after the problems surfaced, the monitor's 364-page report determined the DFPS's failures are “systemic and enduring” and a danger to children throughout the system.
This is evident from the deaths of three children in long-term care this year, in addition to numerous other reports of abuse, neglect, backlogs and under-reporting.
In one case, a caregiver found a 3-year-old unconscious with blood seeping from their ears. That 3-year-old went by the initials A.B.
In the months prior to A.B.'s death, the report found multiple referrals were made to the state hotline about the child's safety. Two abuse investigations were conducted that did not lead to the child being removed from their caregiver. Even a physician's review expressed concerns about A.B. facing "non-accidental trauma" based on the bruising and injuries they saw.
“Every day, children are crying out and they’re being ignored," said Paul Yetter, lead attorney for the children.
The report claims the system is disjointed and divided between DFPS and the Human Health and Services Commission (HHSC). HHSC used to oversee the care of children prior to the formation of DFPS. This has led to a system where children are "overlooked, ignored, or forgotten," the report stated.
The deaths of these children are just a few examples of how the DFPS frequently downgraded or dismissed investigations -- even when a child was at risk -- if the allegations were "too vague" to determine if the child was abused or neglected, the report stated.
In another case, the monitors found 10 separate allegations of an employee abusing children through kicking, punching and restraining them, or allowing other kids to hurt the child.
"Despite being terminated at one facility, he remained eligible to work and still does," the report stated.
The monitors were thorough in their work, looking through tens of thousands of files and records, conducting unannounced visits to various facilities and homes and interviewing hundreds of employees to find their answers.
Of the numerous reports they reviewed, 33% of cases of abuse and neglect were inappropriately downgraded, according to the monitor's report. The report also stated if an investigation was launched, the state would only notify the child's caseworker 23% of the time.
This became problematic because if the caseworkers were not notified, they could not check in on their children.
On Sunday, DFPS responded to the motion filed, stating the monitors' report did not represent the round-the-clock efforts they made to comply.
"To the best of our ability, and considering child welfare practices, we have used the resources generously provided by the Legislature to meet the Court's orders. We will be sharing details about all of these efforts with the Court while we continue to work with the monitors," DFPS said.
In the 2017 Texas legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers passed extensive reform and placed millions of dollars toward reforming the broken system.
KVUE reached out to Gov. Abbott multiple times regarding the report, but he has not responded.
However, when asked about the monitors' report during a press conference on June 16, The Texas Tribune reported Abbott said he had not looked at the report so he "can't tell or know what [the monitors] are saying or how we are coming up short."
However, he added, "if there are ways we can improve upon what we have already done, we'll do it."
Numerous other findings were documented in the report, including an extreme backlog of cases that meant kids would have to stay in their current conditions until the backlogged cases were addressed.
Caseworkers are also overloaded with cases, with kids' lack of understanding of how to report abuse allegations and with the continued eligibility for employees to work despite reports against them.
“Abusers get a free pass and children are ignored, same as before,” said Yetter. “This is a stain on our state.”
In February, KVUE took a deep dive into the current state of Texas foster care and what leaders are doing to improve it.
KVUE reached out to the Attorney General Ken Paxton's office for comment. The office released the following statement:
"As attorneys representing the parties in this case, we are unable to comment on the substance of a pending matter, other than to refer you to the pleadings on file."
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