AUSTIN — Foster children who have been sexually abused are being placed in rooms alongside youths flagged for a history of sexual assault and the state is doing nothing about it, a judge ruled Wednesday. federal.

Texas has a checkered history when it comes to foster care, with multiple condemnations of its system with blue tape signs over the past few decades.

In a federal courthouse in Corpus Christi on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack said that while Texas has grown in some areas in recent years, it has retreated in other ways — the threats to children’s safety increasing, not receding. .

Wednesday’s all-day court hearing included testimony that too many foster children are being prescribed four or more drugs at once without the necessary assessments and evaluations. Also, the state isn’t moving fast enough to reduce the number of children who are staying in hotels and churches because they don’t have a placement, Jack said.

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Turnover is rising again among child protective workers responsible for protecting foster children, ‘which is horribly disruptive for children’ removed from their biological families due to abuse and negligence, Jack said. In the first six months of the current fiscal year, social workers in CPS foster homes are resigning at an annual rate of 35%.

Seven years ago, to help alleviate a shortage of social workers, the CPS lowered its requirement that they be college graduates and began accepting two-year associate degrees. To improve retention, Jack imposed non-binding “workload standards” of 14 to 17 children per worker. State officials have acknowledged that they are struggling to retain workers.

On Wednesday, Jack and the children’s plaintiffs’ lead attorney also expressed outrage after Jordan Dixon, director of policy and regulation for the Health and Human Services Commission, testified in federal court in Corpus Christi. that his agency had imposed only $8,600 in fines against 35 transactions. with a poor track record last year.

“I don’t know how it’s going to affect anyone’s conduct, if they put children at risk and don’t meet minimum standards and they’re just penalized $245” each, the plaintiffs’ attorney said, Paul Yetter.

Dixon said state law caps fines at $500 per violation.

In foster care, the heaviest penalties are not fines, but the risk of losing a license and having the CPS cancel a contract and stop sending children. In the lawsuit, Jack said the commission was not revoking enough licenses and that CPS was failing to void contracts and slap vendors with placement blocks.

Its requirement that poor quality providers be placed under “increased scrutiny”, which triggers waves of inspections, has been denounced by key drafters of the Legislative Assembly’s child protection policy as overdone.

Yet a Houston corporate attorney who has worked the case for free since it was filed in 2011 has seen the number of long-term foster children he represents drop to around 9,000 from 12,000.

After many, if not all, of the remedies offered by Jack survived review by an appeals court, “the state’s efforts have been productive in some respects,” Yetter said. Still, “there isn’t progress fast enough” and the state hasn’t come up with enough solutions, he said.

In late 2019, Jack hit Texas with $50,000-a-day fines for not making progress on his orders. She suspended them after three days. Last June, she threatened to levy even larger fines — fines so large that the state could invoke a defendant’s right to a jury trial. In January, she warned more massive fines could be coming.

On Wednesday, she appeared to question whether she would impose financial penalties at a hearing on June 27. She said she first asked her monitors to build a more airtight case that the abuse of mind-altering drugs put children at risk.

Jack said she was “a little depressed” after reading the latest report from her monitors, two child protection experts who are paid more than $1 million a month by state taxpayers.

Monitors Kevin Ryan of New Jersey and Deborah Fowler of Austin report directly to Jack on whether Texas is complying with the dozens of orders the judge has issued since 2015. Ryan and Fowler have hired dozens of people to help them assess the system. Between September 2019 and last December, Ryan’s Public Catalyst and Fowler’s Texas Appleseed organizations received $41.3 million.

The report covered their multi-day visits, including overnight, to 14 general residential operations between December 2021 and December 2022.

Jack, 76, a former nurse who got her first taste of child welfare in Texas as an attorney for the Corpus Christi family, is an appointee of former President Bill Clinton. She no longer manages a full file and now spends much of her time in Dallas, near her grandchildren.

For nearly a decade, she’s said adoptive children in Texas leave the system worse off than they entered it. But Texas is recalcitrant and change is hard to achieve, Jack said Wednesday.

Yet before the June hearing, he and other children’s attorneys from Dallas, Houston and New York will seek contempt of court penalties against the state for three breaches. It continues to place too many children in unlicensed environments, fails to give young people the opportunity to report abuse, and relies too heavily on psychotropic drugs to manage children’s behavior rather than bring them healing, a- he declared.

The authority of the judge questioned

Reynolds Brissenden, a lawyer with Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office who represents the commission, said Jack did not issue any specific mental health drug orders.

“We don’t think these are appropriate matters to advance for a show cause” triggering contempt of court penalties, he said in response to Yetter.

When the judge gave them a chance, Paxton’s attorneys who represent the Department of Family and Protective Services and Gov. Greg Abbott, the other defendants in the 12-year class action lawsuit, offered Yetter no response.

Jack insisted she had approval from the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals to oversee powerful mental health drugs as part of an approved injunction that allows her to compel Texas to end the unconstitutional treatment of children placed in unreasonably dangerous institutions.

“You have children under 3 on multiple psychotropics, without any of the tests that you say are necessary for those drugs,” she told Protective Services Department Chief Stephanie Muth and Cecile Young , Executive Commissioner of Health and Human Services. Commission.

“Can you imagine, as a child, taking four or more psychotropics without any follow-up? she says.

Fowler and Ryan found that 47% of children in the 14 facilities whose records they reviewed were prescribed four or more psychoactive drugs. Of these, nearly three-quarters had never or had not received a clinical examination in the past year required by state guidelines regarding the use of psychotropic drugs for foster children.

Botched sexual abuse investigation

During botched investigations by Child Protective Investigations, Jack and his monitors identified a congregate care facility in Harris County. They said they mishandled a resident boy’s outcry last May that a housemate had touched him sexually while he slept.

According to a new report from Jack’s court-appointed monitors.

An email sent to Gold Star Academy seeking comment early Wednesday afternoon received no response. No one answered the main phone number listed in state records or returned the call after text notification of a reporter’s number.

Jack said that while his monitors launched an investigation into the Gold Star resident’s outcry, state child care investigators conducted a ‘flawed’ investigation and improperly ruled out negligent supervision .

Clint Cox, assistant deputy commissioner of the department for child protection investigations, said investigators interviewed from Gold Star children “reported inconsistent”. He could not act “on an unknown alleged perpetrator”, who remains unknown, he said.

“With DFPS, we don’t find children as alleged perpetrators of another child…in care,” Cox said.

“Okay, that’s part of the problem. That’s child abuse,” Jack replied.

The member of the surveillance team who reported the boy’s outcry to the hotline quoted him and other roommates as saying the inappropriate sexual conduct occurred during the 15 minutes between the required regular checks of the room by two night staff, according to the monitors’ report.

Adult employees were not placed to see what was happening as they had other nightly duties, such as ironing children’s clothes for school the next day, the report added.

And the facility and Cox staff ignored how the child accused of inappropriate touching was flagged in CPS records as having a history of sexual assault, Jack said.

“You put a sexual aggressor with a sexual victim, and the obvious happened. And it was always ‘excluded,'” she said.

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