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Texas is facing a foster care capacity crisis, experts say, losing hundreds of beds in the past year. The situation was only made worse following the shutdown of San Antonio’s main emergency shelter in April.

Child advocates hope state legislators will use the special session, which begins July 8, to allocate more funding to the overstrained system, which has been under the oversight of a federal court since 2015, but Gov. Greg Abbott still has not announced what priorities lawmakers will tackle starting next week.

Others question whether Child Protective Services is removing too many children for neglect-related issues that could be solved by offering families more direct support.

Meanwhile, as of last week, 147 foster care children across Texas — 43 of whom are from Bexar County — are in limbo. Unable to find proper placements, many are sleeping in CPS offices. According to state data, 282 children statewide spent two or more nights in CPS offices in April due to lack of foster care beds, said Jesse Booher, senior vice president and chief operating officer of DePelchin Children’s Center, an accredited foster care and adoption agency with four locations across Texas, including one in San Antonio.

By contrast, in April 2020 the number of children forced to spend two or more nights on the floor of a state office was 47. 

The state Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) has taken over the placement of Bexar County’s foster children, a process that began in April.

State officials made its move after Family Tapestry, a division of the Children’s Shelter that held a contract with the state to place Bexar County children, struggled to find appropriate spots for them. A court-appointed monitor also reported unsafe conditions, inadequate staffing, and abuse by older children of younger ones.

Lack of capacity “is the reason children are sleeping in offices,” said John Wilhelm, program director for 1Hope for Kids, a foster care and adoption agency in Bexar, Comal, and surrounding counties. “Family Tapestry … didn’t have anywhere to put them. I think personally Family Tapestry had good intentions, but I think they underestimated the challenge.”

A crisis beyond beds

Capacity is not the only issue straining the state’s system, said Jenni Lord, CEO at Chosen Care, a nonprofit with offices in New Braunfels and San Antonio that supports local adoptive and foster families and organizations by providing parenting education and coaching.

“The state does not adequately pay for all of the services that are needed for these kids,” Lord said. “The rates aren’t high enough to support the staff of these child-placing agencies.”

In a statement the Children’s Shelter CEO Annette Rodriguez issued to media shortly following the closure of the emergency shelter, known as “the Cottage,” she argued the organization’s problems were due to statewide capacity limits and lack of funding.

“Our facilities, staff, and trauma-informed care model was originally designed to serve young children and sibling groups,” Rodriguez stated. “Due to the capacity crisis we are facing across the state, the Emergency Shelter has tried to provide care and accommodations for much older youth, which is difficult to do at the Cottage.”

Illustrating the scale of the capacity crisis, Rodriguez said, “Texas has lost more than 1,000 residential treatment center beds … in the past 12 months.”

A child in foster care plays dominoes at a group home run by TruLight127 . Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In a letter to the DFPS that included the Children’s Shelter’s recovery action plan, Rodriguez said the coronavirus pandemic made matters worse. She called the past year one of “extraordinary circumstances” that “neither DFPS nor [the Children’s Shelter] would have reasonably anticipated.”

State contractors such as Family Tapestry at the Children’s Shelter can’t turn away children who need foster care placement, regardless of whether they have adequate capacity.

When there isn’t enough space or beds to properly separate older and younger children, as was the case at the Children’s Shelter, abuse of younger kids by older ones is harder to stop, Wilhelm said. Many older kids need special one-on-one attention, he said, resources agencies can’t provide without better funding and more help from the state.

Texas Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) agreed that more funding is needed, but said more money alone can’t solve the issues.

“Do we need to pay workers better rates? Yes,” he said. “Do we need to attract more employees because of the heightened monitoring and COVID-19? Yes. Do we need people who are better qualified because there’s a shortage of mental health care providers and a shortage of providers in general terms? Would more money help? I believe it could, but it needs to be used wisely.”

More resources, fewer removals?

Another way to tackle the capacity crisis would be to reduce the number of children being taken from their homes in the first place, said Angie White, president and CEO of Child Advocates San Antonio, or CASA, which represents foster care children in court proceedings.

“Are we always removing correctly?” White said. “Do we need to be putting the child in a system when there’s nowhere for them to go?”

Children can be removed from a parent’s home for neglect, which often means a lack of resources to adequately care for the child, White said. If Child Protective Services was able to buy a bed, pay a utility bill, or help a family get nutrition assistance, White said, the state wouldn’t have to remove those children in the first place.

Having worked with foster kids for the last 17 years, TruLight127 Ministries CEO and founder Sondra Ajasin said she’s only seen the strain on the system get worse. TruLight127 began placing children in 2016. In 2019, it opened TruLight Youth Village, an emergency shelter in Seguin that works to help keep together sibling groups going into foster care, Ajasin said.

“This is probably what some people would call the perfect storm happening here in Texas,” Ajasin said. “With the heightened monitoring that’s happening because of the federal judge, with places closing down — then there’s the increased number of intakes because of COVID and a rise in domestic violence and drug use, so it’s just been the perfect storm.” 

Texas’ foster care system has been overseen by a court-appointed monitor since 2015, the result of a 2011 lawsuit in which children’s advocates sued Texas in federal court over its treatment of kids in state care. The court case revealed that several children died while in state care while many others suffered instances of abuse or neglect in the system. 

In 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled Texas was violating foster children’s constitutional rights to be free from an unreasonable risk of harm and mandated reforms to the Texas foster care system. Last year, state officials were at risk of being held in contempt of court for not yet having implemented reforms.

Among the mandated reforms that have been implemented is that the court be given regular progress reports by two monitors.

Jack excoriated Family Tapestry in May after the most recent report from monitors cited a slew of problems, including insufficient medical attention, inadequate supervision and allegations of violence and sexual assault. The report also discovered that the Children’s Shelter had been operating one of its shelter locations, the Whataburger Center for Children and Youth, illegally for several months. The judge was unmoved by Rodriguez’s plea for more resources.

People interested in helping can donate to foster care shelters and placement agencies, volunteer with a local foster care agency, or “open their hearts and homes” to foster children, Ajasin said.

“It really sucks to see these kids just constantly suffer because of the decisions adults are making,” she said. “We need more foster families and we need more capacity.”

This article has been updated to correct the name of Child Advocates San Antonio.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.