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Texas harms foster children with inattention, shoddy system, lawsuit says.


Austin Bureau

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Published 29 March 2011 10:38 AM

AUSTIN — Texas violates the rights of abused and neglected children by running a shoddy foster care system, the New York-based group Children’s Rights says in a class-action federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Too many youths are isolated and linger for years in care, the suit says.

The state says that it is working on fixes and that most foster children are safe.

But in its suit filed in federal court in Corpus Christi, Children’s Rights said Texas violates the constitutional rights of many youngsters in its care by running a shoddy foster care system and ignoring their needs.

The group zeroed in on youths who’ve been removed from their birth homes by Child Protective Services and kept in the state’s care for more than a year, saying very bad things often happen after “permanency” deadlines of 12 to 18 months have raced by in a child’s legal case. Too often, CPS is unable to reunite the child with family or find a lasting home, such as with a relative or adoptive parents, and drops the ball because children from then on aren’t required to have their own lawyer and another adult advocating for them, the suit says.

“Once children cross the line into permanent foster care, the state essentially gives up on their prospects for ever leaving state custody with permanent families of their own,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights.

“Instead, thousands of Texas children have no hope for a decent childhood and are subjected to unconscionable damage while under the state’s protection,” she said, saying a federal judge should step in to protect the youth.

The suit names as defendants Gov. Rick Perry, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs and Anne Heiligenstein, commissioner of CPS’ parent agency, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

The department, which had no immediate comment, has warned state leaders for months that the suit might be filed. A memo its “external affairs” director sent to legislative leaders in September emphasized large amounts of attorneys’ fees that have been awarded to Children’s Rights in similar lawsuits in other states.

The memo also touted CPS overhaul legislation passed in 2005 and a foster-care overhaul passed two years later for bumping up staffing and making sizable reductions in CPS workers’ caseloads.

Unmentioned in the memo was a major reduction in staffing and funding in the mid-1990s, even as the state’s child population was surging, after then-House Appropriations Chairman Rob Junnell, D-San Angelo, grew angry with the department’s first chief, an appointee of former Gov. Ann Richards. By the turn of the century, Texas caseloads had zoomed off the national charts, and by the time Perry intervened in 2004 to demand improvements, Texas was playing catch-up.

“In Texas, children in foster care are safe, by an overwhelming margin,” the department’s September memo said. “… Reform is working in Texas.”

The suit, though, paints a different picture. It highlights the plight of nine unnamed children who it wants the court to accept as a representation of the class of about 12,000 youngsters in Texas’ mostly privatized system of long-term foster care who it alleges have been mistreated.

One of them is the wrenching tale of “A.M.,” a 13-year-old from Canton who with two half-sisters was removed from her home after witnessing fights between her mother and her mother’s boyfriends. The department “has separated her from her sisters, shuffled her from one placement to another, placed her in inappropriate foster homes and left her for years in an institution,” the suit says.

It says Texas frequently fails to keep children in the “least restrictive setting” and is too quick to move them into institutions and give them psychotropic medications. Many linger for years in foster care, their emotional problems escalating, because in many rural parts of Texas especially, there are no mental health professionals willing to see new Medicaid patients, the suit says.

Lowry, who as a young civil liberties lawyer upset New York City’s entrenched Catholic and Jewish charities by suing them for refusing to care for many of the city’s poor young black children in protective custody, launched Children’s Rights in 1995.

Spokeswoman Kate Bernyk says it has active class-action lawsuits in 11 states. Eight of the cases have been settled, while three – including Oklahoma’s – are pending, she said.

David Richart, executive director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families, which tracks lawsuits in child welfare and juvenile justice systems, says Lowry picks her targets carefully and almost never loses a case.

Richart said of Texas leaders, “The writing’s on the wall here. If they’re smart, they’ll spend time improving their CPS system instead of being in a reflexively defensive mode, which is what some of the states have done. That’s not to say that every single thing that [Children’s Rights] says is correct … but they have a remarkable record and pretty big warchest.”
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