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Texas fined $100K per day over child welfare failures

People pass near the Earle Cabell Federal Building that houses the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas Monday, Dec. 04, 2023, in downtown Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
The state violated Remedial Orders 3 and 10, which deal with the timely execution and completion of investigations.

Editor's note: The state has appealed the ruling and asked for a stay in the case to avoid the accruing fines. The judge denied the stay, but the appeal will move forward. Read the latest here.

Texas has been held in contempt by a federal judge in the state’s long-running battle over its child welfare system.

It will be forced to pay $100,000 a day in fines until it comes back into compliance with two court orders dealing with investigations of facilities associated with foster children with intellectual disabilities who are permanent wards of the state.

It is the second time that U.S. District Judge Janis Jack has imposed fines against Texas since the foster litigation began more than a dozen years ago.

In a 423-page order filed Monday afternoon, Jack said the state failed to protect youth in facilities that the Health and Human Services Commission’s Provider Investigations unit was charged with investigating.

As of Monday afternoon, HHSC was still reviewing the order.

In a statement, Paul Yetter, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that “[f]or the third time, the State of Texas has been held in contempt for running an unsafe foster care system. The judge’s ruling is measured but urgent, given the shocking evidence. Innocent children are suffering every day. After all these years, when will state leadership get serious about fixing this disaster?”

A three-day contempt hearing in December showed allegations of abuse and neglect of youth went unaddressed at facilities for people with intellectual disabilities, and investigations were poorly run.

At one facility called C3 Christian Academy, the owner Teresa Evans admitted during the contempt hearing they often did not report the abuse allegations to the state. She said that “every allegation doesn’t make for an investigation.”

One youth, referred to as Child C, at the facility was involved in abuse and neglect claims 12 times in a single year. Staff never called Statewide Intake, according to the court document, as required by law. The girl, who had suffered extreme trauma in life already, was left at the facility.

While there, the girl was allegedly tased by a staff member while in bed, ran away twice, attempted to strangle herself twice, was hit, and was locked in a room overnight with another resident while staff left.

The girl was once dropped off at an emergency room with a broken jaw.

C3 Christian Academy was closed in 2023 over its violations.

When reviewed, court monitors found that PI investigators made "critical mistakes” — at times opting to not see the girl in person and other times not accommodating the need for sign language to communicate.

The problems, plaintiffs argued, stemmed from the massive expansion of Provider Investigations work after it was put under HHSC in 2015. The expansion left the department constantly understaffed and backlogged. Months would elapse before an investigation was launched. Plaintiffs called the unit’s work a “chronic failure."

The state violated Remedial Orders 3 and 10, according to the court document. Both deal with the timely execution and completion of investigations.

HHSC and the Department of Family and Protective Services oversee the child welfare system in Texas. Monday’s order avoided punishing the state on a number of serious issues, including what plaintiffs called the overuse of psychotropic drugs, DFPS caseworker caseloads, and the state’s placement crisis — which resulted in hundreds of foster kids each month being housed in hotels.

Those issues could be revisited in June, according to the court document.

Many expected that any contempt order — if it came — would include DFPS, but the federal court may have opted for a narrower ruling to avoid a more aggressive state litigation team.

Texas hired high-priced attorneys at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher with deep ties to the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The team, led by Allyson Ho, had argued in the contempt hearing that the state had made large strides in how it treated foster children.

James C Ho, Allyson’s husband, sits on the 5th Circuit.

Ho’s team asked Jack to release the state from a swath of court orders, arguing they were in “substantial compliance.”

The judge called the filing “hubris” that was beyond her in a February hearing.

The narrow order may be a way to bullet-proof continued oversight of the departments from a 5th Circuit challenge.

The fines against HHSC will continue until the state certifies it has come into compliance with all Provider Investigations involving the protected foster care class, which includes children in what is called Permanent Managing Conservatorship — meaning the state is their permanent legal guardian.

Copyright 2024 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

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.
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