Last month, I was an observer during two days of emergency hearings called by Judge Peter Sakai to address the appalling situation of “children without placement.” These are children in the foster care system who the state agency and the courts have decreed cannot live at home and are currently sleeping in the offices of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Region 8. I learned some of these children have been in the system for many years, through multiple placements in foster homes, group residential placements, and sometimes treatment facilities. And I learned that the child welfare system in this state, specifically the foster care system, has failed them.

Though there were clearly some very hard-working and dedicated caseworkers and administrators, there were also some missing, some calling in from inappropriate settings, and too many delays and excuses. When pushed by Judge Sakai, in some cases it was clear that there was no good reason for the delays in finding “safe accommodations” as required by court order.

The children, ages 12 to 17, attended the hearings by Zoom because Judge Sakai wanted their input and opinions regarding their own situations and lives. As we listened to the stories and circumstances of these young people, we heard their hopes and dreams — and their frustration and anger as they try to navigate and cope with situations that no child deserves.

These children did not have a voice in deciding where they were born, the circumstances and behavior of their parents, or the challenges of an overwhelmed and underfunded system. Despite their circumstances, they showed remarkable resiliency. They had ideas of where they want to be now, ideas that Judge Sakai agreed with and that he instructed caseworkers and administrators to act on. 

A few of the children had major medical or developmental issues which were not being adequately addressed in the foster care system. In some cases, their parents could not manage their special needs and the resources available were not sufficient to allow the child to remain at home. There were three parents that attended the hearings, clearly concerned for the welfare of their children, that they could not manage on their own. Wouldn’t it make more sense to provide parents with what they need to support them in parenting their children, at least until appropriate placement can be found?  

The success of the two innovative courts within the Bexar County Children’s Court —Family Drug Court and Early Childhood Court — have shown that parents whose children have been removed, but who are given the treatment, education, support, and opportunities to change their lives can indeed go on to provide loving care for their children. Over the past decade, the overwhelming majority of families restored through this process have been successful and have had no further contact with the legal or child welfare system.

When local placements cannot be found, our children are being shipped out of state, away from family, friends, and their schools. These children are most often going, according to the Commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, to states that have expanded Medicaid and have used those federal dollars to improve their foster care programs. 

Our legislators continue to be concerned about some possible future expense, a concern that, in the 10 years since the initiation of the Affordable Care Act, has not been seen by the other 38 states that chose to accept federal Medicaid funding. Should a young child with a serious chronic disease live in an office and risk being sent to another state because this state does not have the Medicaid resources to provide the medical and nursing care he needs to manage his condition?

Six years ago, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled that the Texas foster care system, in its appalling treatment and lack of protection of children entrusted to its care, violates the constitutional rights of children. She stated in a recent hearing that the days of looking the other way are gone. She was speaking both to the child protective system and to our state.  

We, as a community, can help by mentoring a teen aging out of foster care or in the college-bound court docket as they go after their dreams, volunteering and training as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, and supporting policies and programs that help families survive and stay together. But, ultimately, it’s up to our state leaders to take action that will effect lasting change. They can do this by:

  • Ensuring parents have what they need to parent — food, housing, childcare that enables them to work while providing safety and respite, access to mental health and substance abuse treatment — and keep children out of the foster care stystem.
  • Starting early in a family’s involvement with Child Protective Services and foster care to identify and provide the treatment and other resources that can result in rapid family restoration. Alternativaly, identify and vet family members and fictive kin able to parent the child and support them in their efforts. Put intensive efforts at the front end, before young children experience additional trauma and resulting emotional and behavioral problems.
  • Prioritizing funding from the Family First Prevention and Treatment Act, American Recovery Act, and any other sources for preventive and upstream resources, lessening the need to continuously attempt to shore up an overburdened system that often fails children.
  • Continuing to expand specialized, trauma-informed courts such as early childhood courts and drug courts that are proven locally and through national studies to be effective in reuniting families able to care for their children, sparing children additional trauma, and producing a high return on investment.
  • Working to develop family resource centers, crisis nurseries, or other proven models to support any family, of any income level, with the information, education, and other resources to successfully raise their children.
  • Consider, again, expanding Medicaid, that in 10 years and 38 states, has produced cost savings while providing resources including health and mental health treatment that allow children to grow up safely and families to thrive.

Keeping children out of the foster care system or returning them to family as quickly as possible helps the children and also eases the burden on the system so, when absolutely necessary, it can operate in place of parents, providing the safe, sensitive, appropriate, and nurturing care that they and all children deserve. In order for the foster care system to operate as it should, we must look upstream to help families and keep as many children out of the system as we can. To echo Judge Jack, the days of looking the other way are gone. 

Kathleen Fletcher

Kathleen Fletcher is president and CEO of Voices for Children of San Antonio.