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Texas could face fines over dysfunctional foster care system

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

America's foster system is in crisis, and Texas' network is among the most troubled. For more than a decade, Texas has faced federal action over what plaintiffs call a broken foster care system, and a federal court is now weighing whether to impose hefty fines over the state's inability to make progress on court-ordered reforms. Paul Flahive of Texas Public Radio has the story, and as a note to listeners, it does include a description of self-harm.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: The signs of past abuse are unmistakable on Britney Pollack.

BRITNEY POLLACK: I always get judged for my arms.

FLAHIVE: The 18-year-old's left arm is covered in scar tissue from hundreds of self-inflicted cuts.

POLLACK: For me, people didn't want to keep me. Or I feel like people didn't want anything to do with me because I look like I'm insane. But in all reality, we're not insane. We just are looking for somebody to love us.

FLAHIVE: Pollack says the cutting helped her cope with past trauma from an abusive family and with being in foster care the past four years. Since she was 14, Pollack says she spent her time being shuttled between treatment centers and psychiatric hospitals, often changing doctors and medications each time, never finding stability. So now, more than a dozen placements and 230 different medications later, she says the state's child welfare system is a lie.

POLLACK: I feel like it's a lie because they say they're trying to protect us. They want to keep us safe. They want to make sure we're being taken care of, but we're not.

FLAHIVE: Her cycle often led to having no place to go and being labeled a, quote, "child without placement." That means being warehoused in taxpayer-funded hotel rooms with other kids. At one point, there were more than 400 children a night. Pollack spent months in them, months eating fast food or a sandwich for each meal, being squeezed into a two-bed room with three or four caseworkers paid to watch them. While at the hotel, the state often offered no psychiatric treatment or other services, and after some hotels started throwing foster children out over their behavior, state staff cracked down even more.

POLLACK: Then it got to the point where we couldn't go nowhere. We had to stay in our hotel room and not move. We were, like, locked in there. Like, a CPS worker would literally sit out the door. So like, we couldn't get out anyway because then technically we're putting our hands on somebody, and I - we're ending up in jail.

FLAHIVE: Children without placement hotels exist because Texas doesn't have enough places for children like Pollack, ones with high mental health needs, to go. Federal court monitors call these placements dangerous, noting in its reports times when kids got assaulted, ran away or were sex trafficked. And for more than three years, what was supposed to be a temporary placement for kids has often lasted for weeks or months. The state says it has cut the numbers of children without placement in half, but it's still more than 100 kids a month. It's cost $250 million over three years.

PAUL YETTER: There's so much waste.

FLAHIVE: Attorney Paul Yetter represents current and former foster youth in the ongoing federal lawsuit against Texas' system.

YETTER: There is no coherent plan to fix the problem. The state is just dumping buckets of money on a shadow system that is hurting children.

FLAHIVE: Yetter says this shadow system is a good example of how Texas has failed to reform. Texas is a big state, and state officials can't just snap their fingers and fix it. But, he says, for much of the last 13 years, it hasn't been trying.

YETTER: But has instead been aggressively refusing and opposing reform. So we have a big system with lots of problems, and we have a leadership that is just not willing to work cooperatively to get it fixed or to find solutions.

FLAHIVE: A federal judge agrees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANIS JACK: Good morning. OK. Would you call the case?

FLAHIVE: Yetter points to a hearing just last week showing the state's uncooperative attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK: It's 9 o'clock. It's 9 - it's after 9. Where are the documents? I need them in hand right now.

FLAHIVE: This is Janis Jack, the federal district judge overseeing court-ordered reforms of Texas' foster care system. The state was ordered to bring documents showing what efforts it made to fix the placement issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK: Did you bring the documents?

FLAHIVE: The state's attorney didn't have them. Judge Jack threatened contempt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK: Have you ever seen the inside of a jail cell?

FLAHIVE: She agrees to give the state more time, but later, her frustration boils over. Judge Jack calls the bureaucracy that produced these ongoing failures horrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK: You know what year this is? This is 2024. How long have we been wrestling with this problem?

FLAHIVE: But conservatives like Texas State House Representative James Frank alleged the lawsuit itself causes some of the problems it's railing against.

JAMES FRANK: The federal judge is the arsonist claiming there's a fire.

FLAHIVE: Representative Frank says the federal lawsuit wastes money and resources, and it's scaring away scarce treatment providers that could care for these kids.

FRANK: Basically, nobody wants to work with the state of Texas on high-risk kids because you are going to end up under the thumb of the judge if you do.

FLAHIVE: Texas argues its foster system has shown significant progress on many of the court's orders and is substantially in compliance. In coming weeks, Judge Jack will decide if they actually are. The system is still clearly in crisis, says Christie Carrington, a retired family services worker who now works for the state employees' union.

CHRISTIE CARRINGTON: It's not safe for anybody.

FLAHIVE: That's one of the reasons people are fleeing the department. One in four caseworkers leave within a year of being hired.

CARRINGTON: Keeping children safe is our job. That's the only reason we exist. And if we're not doing that, then we might as well pack up and go home.

FLAHIVE: She says the lack of progress is astounding, and she questions if state leaders can spend billions erecting barriers on Texas' southern border, why can't they fix this?

CARRINGTON: The governor can do it. He does all kinds of stuff. You can't tell me he can't do something with this if he doesn't - you know, if he truly wanted to. He does everything else - razor wire in the rivers and, you know. What about these children?

FLAHIVE: Texas is not the only state to deal with legal fights over foster care. Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas have all dealt with federal oversight. Many still are. Eighteen-year-old Brittany Pollack's time in Texas foster care went straight from a child without placement hotel to county jail. Like many kids with high needs in the program, she broke the rules, and a worker said Pollack hurt her when she tried to take away the girl's phone. Pollack spent two weeks in the Brazoria County Jail for a misdemeanor. She says Child Protective Services was so bad that she would have rather stayed with her abusive family.

POLLACK: Because we didn't ask to be in CPS. I didn't just tell CPS, hey, take me away from my abusive family. All we want is a family. And when we're not getting that, it hurts.

FLAHIVE: Now living in a private group home, Pollack is free of the department, and tattooed over the hundreds of cutting scars on her left arm in dark, cursive black lettering is the word survivor. For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paul Flahive
Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.