Year In Review 2016: Foster Kid Issues

The new year is in full swing. However, before we completely say goodbye to 2016, let’s review a couple of the stories I touched on during last year. One of my pet peeves is how the media jumps from today’s hot story to the next without giving us the complete story or the outcome. We often read some terrible story about an abused foster child or how changes are being put into place but are often left hanging. What happened to the court ordered Texas foster care review that aimed to identify solutions to fix the state’s system? What changed for Ohio’s foster children last year? Let's follow up on these two stories and find out.

Texas foster children versus the State

In my column, “Texas Foster Children: Research or Scam?,” I shared how the foster care crisis in Texas had reached such a miserable state that in December 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack had ordered a review of the state's foster child system. Her involvement was prompted in part by a 2011 lawsuit brought against The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services on behalf of 12,000 foster children. The review has been completed so a huge congratulation to the judge and the selected panel of experts for the completion of the Texas foster care study.

Unfortunately, don’t expect any positive action to be taken by state officials. In fact, the state seems set on digging in its heels and working to find every excuse possible as to why none of the several recommendations will work to the betterment of foster children and those dedicated to helping them.

One of those crazy ideas (sarcasm intended) by the two court-appointed special masters was to lower the case load for social workers. It’s a fact that some social workers are overburdened with anywhere from forty to seventy foster child cases although the Department of Family and Protective Services reported an averaged 29.7% cases per worker for 2015. To put this into perspective, the report recommends a maximum of 17 cases.

But have no fear. The idea of limiting this massive work load that continues to harmfully impact the lives of Texas foster children is being aggressively crushed by Attorney General Ken Paxton. As reported by The Dallas Morning News, the state “has spent more than $7 million fighting a class-action lawsuit.” With this level of spending justified by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the state now has far fewer funds to hire more case workers who could help to reduce, among many issues, physical and sexual assault, including rape, on foster children.

Yet while Texas officials cry foul, saying they are cash-strapped, Robert T. Garrett of the Dallas Morning News in his article, "Texas fighting judge’s order to fix foster care system on every front, in ways other states haven’t" wrote:

“In the past two years, Texas has spent $3.1 million on a consultant for CPS. At the March 21 hearing, [Judge] Jack raised eyebrows about $1.3 million the state spent to quickly evacuate 86 high-needs foster children from subpar residential facilities in West Texas. CPS took them to temporary shelters in San Antonio because it had no available fosterbeds. ‘I'm just wondering where all this money is coming from,’ Jack mused.”

Sometimes the best solution is the simplest – take the $3.1 million being paid to a consultant, hire more case workers and put in a better oversight process that will keep more foster children from falling through the cracks. But, hey, let’s not do something that actually makes sense!

Janet Atkins, a California social worker for child-protection agencies, explained that case workers "either give priority to seeing the families and children under their watch, or do the paperwork." This isn’t a California problem. This is a national foster child crisis occurring in every state with some statistics citing case worker turnover from burn-out at roughly 70%.

As for Texas foster children, Judge Janis Graham Jack is quoted as saying that the system is a place where “Rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm.” So for now, these children will continue to be at risk of abuse and, sadly, death while in state foster care. How much more disgusting does it have to get before someone in Texas politics wakes up to this ongoing disaster called state foster care?!

Ohio will help its foster children until age 21

One of the bright spots in foster care was the announcement in July that Ohio had finally passed a law increasing the age before a foster youth is forced to leave the system from 18 to 21. Ohio is now aligned in general principals with nearly half of the states with this higher age limit. Now before you get all excited, keep in mind that state officials say that the law isn’t set to be implemented for at least another 18 months. So based on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics for Ohio’s foster youths who age out at 18:

  • 26% will become homeless

  • 36% will be put into chains, locked up and sent to prison with murderers and rapists

  • 53% will not complete high school so only 12% of these foster kids will find full-time work

So I’m going to be an optimist and hope that, unlike Texas, Ohio’s foster care agencies will embrace the new law and put proven programs into place to help foster teenagers transition into adulthood and living on their own.

At the same time, family finding will continue to be a critically important process for the thousands of Ohio children still in foster care. Families can and do provide the emotional and mental stability that is often lacking for these children while in the system.

Let’s face it, who do you trust to teach a teenager about money and work ethics? The government where millions of students continue to graduate each year without having to take even one class on finances or a caring adult who can share their experiences, both good and bad, with a youth? I vote for the personal connection and teachings until some formal financial training is put into place for all children, especially foster kids.

Family finding is not the only solution for foster children, but it is a powerful tool that is too often not used to its fullest potential -- or worse, is treated as a suggestion rather than the obligation that each case worker and foster care agency should be bent on fulfilling. A new study by the Administration for Children and Families uncovered that a parent (14.8%) was less likely to help a foster kid who has aged out compared to a relative at 24.7%. Family finding efforts often identify and locate aunts, uncles and grandparents who are willing to be there for their foster child relative. This diligence has the ability to completely change a foster kid’s life.

I had intimated in an earlier column that the study on Texas’ foster care might lead to nothing. I am very impressed that the study was completed along with the several recommendations that included reality checks such as lowering the case load for social workers. Yet Texas politicians have not disappointed with their assault on each and every aspect of the study. There is no one-size-fits-all, and agencies and politicians need to look at solutions for when a child is in the foster care system and once they are forced to be on their own.

Ohio stepped up and is working to help their foster children have a better, brighter future. Texas is clearly doing the opposite. With a nod to Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post, the legitimate question that you must ask is, “Why are these officials not even trying to fix a foster care system that is so broken that it places thousands of children at risk of bodily harm or death on a daily basis?” How much more blood needs to be spilt? Foster children deserve so much better.