Judge finds Texas' foster care unconstitutionally 'broken'

By Paul Weber

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A federal judge ruled Thursday that the Texas foster care system for nearly 30,000 children is unconstitutionally broken, saying that kids rescued by one of the largest child protection agencies in the U.S. often leave state custody in worse shape than before.

The decision is another blow to the troubled Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which has cycled through seven leaders in the past decade and could now be on the verge of another lengthy, costly and politically volatile round of modifications.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ordered sweeping changes that include reducing "impossible" workloads for caseworkers and an immediate halt to placing kids in group homes that lack round-the-clock supervision. She said an outside expert will be appointed to lead the overhaul and report back to her.

"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," Jack wrote in a 260-page opinion. "Although some foster children are able to overcome these obstacles, they should not have to."

A class-action lawsuit in 2011, brought by the New York-based advocacy group Children's Rights, accused the state of perennial mismanagement, understaffing and putting kids at risk for abuse and neglect. Eight foster children died from maltreatment in foster homes in fiscal year 2013, a fourfold increase from the year prior. In 2014, three died in foster care.

State officials did not immediately say whether they would appeal Thursday's decision.

During trial last year, Texas defended improvements to its $1.2 billion child protective services division and argued that employee turnover rates and placements with relatives and adoptions were on par with other states. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott also signed laws this summer that improved training and screening for prospective foster parents following high-profile deaths.

"We are obviously disappointed with the ruling, because great progress has been achieved improving the Texas foster care system. Texas performs comparably with other states in this area, and has steadily improved," said Julie Moody, a spokeswoman for Texas' child welfare agency.

Child advocates cheered the ruling and urged the state start working on changes rather than pursuing appeals. Jack said the "special master" for the overhaul will be selected by January and have six months to present the court with a plan.

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