The Foster Care Crisis in Texas and What It Means for All of Us
Imagine you’re a child in foster care. You’ve been taken away from your home and your caregiver (for your own safety). You’re scared, lonely, likely traumatized from that experience, and the toxic trauma that led to the removal.
But instead of staying with a foster family or a relative, you’re in some cramped office. With desks and chairs and filing cabinets. The fluorescent lights are way too bright. There’s no place to take a shower. There’s nothing to eat. There are no other kids around.
Of course there’s no bed, just a mat on the floor. And your guardians are Child Protective Services workers who are not trained to directly care for children.
This has been the horrific experience of thousands of children who have spent nights in CPS offices across the state of Texas over the last decade, even though it’s technically illegal to put children in unlicensed facilities. The issue of children without placements (CWOP) has been a nagging problem for years, but the number of CWOPs has recently soared by nearly tenfold due to a confluence of factors.
What’s happening in Texas right now should concern everyone in the child welfare system, within the state and beyond. We need to take action at every level to ensure that the foster care crisis in Texas doesn’t unfold into a national trend that will severely affect thousands of the most vulnerable children in foster care.
How the crisis came to be in Texas
The placement shortage in the state has been building for years because many shelters and group facilities have closed down, spurred by increased scrutiny as the result of a federal lawsuit as well as lack of funding for providers. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly made the situation worse, but it wasn’t the primary issue.
Providers are dropping out of their contracts, saying they can’t afford to stay in business if they aren’t adequately compensated. These privately-run providers mostly operate group homes for children in foster care. The unintended consequences of the federal crackdown, along with shrinking budgets for provider payments, has meant that Texas has lost at least 1,000 beds for children in 2021.
The result is that 415 children in Texas have spent at least two consecutive nights in unlicensed placements, shuttled between hotel rooms, churches and, yes, state CPS offices. That’s the highest number of CWOPs on record for the state.
Dire consequences for the most vulnerable children
When children end up in places that are not meant to house children, bad things happen.
CWOP cases have been subjected to physical and sexual violence. In one case, a foster care child without placement was shot in the back of the head during an alleged carjacking attempt while under the care of CPS officials. Another child slept in a CPS office for 80 days straight!
Others have gone missing, or ended up being targeted for sex trafficking. To be fair, these types of incidents also happen under the supervision of foster families, but we know that the CPS authorities are overwhelmed with trying to take care of these kids. Often, these children are ones with the most complex needs, making placement extremely difficult.
“We’re talking about traumatized children who have experienced abuse, neglect, who are being put in what’s now makeshift residential treatment centers or makeshift group homes being supervised by CPS workers,” Judge Aurora Martinez Jones, who oversees child welfare cases in 126th District Court in Travis County, told The Texas Tribune. “The [CPS workers] are not trained as caregivers ... for the care of children who’ve been abused, neglected and who’ve experienced a lot of trauma. It is not serving the kids well. It is not serving the workers well.”
“I know you know this, but we are dying.I have staff at their breaking point, both mentally and physically. This is completely draining everyone as I have 17 kids who all have EXTREME needs that we are not able, equipped, or trained to manage/care for,” one DFPS worker wrote.
Possible solutions to a growing problem
The quickest and easiest fix to the crisis comes down to money, many advocates say — more money for the operators of group facilities so they will stay in business. But so far, the state legislature hasn’t been able to meet on this issue.
Authorities can also try harder to recruit more traine foster families, a willing family relative, or some other appropriate placement for these kids.
There’s also more that can be done to reduce the number of children entering foster care in Texas — as well as preventing fewer of these cases from reaching the crisis point. When children must be removed from their families for their safety, the whole community around them must ensure that the trauma and instability doesn’t escalate further, to the point where placement for them becomes too difficult.
On the whole, all of us in the child welfare community should commit to supporting children and families earlier in the process so that placements don’t become impossible down the road. We can and should focus on keeping children safer and more supported while they are with their birth families.
The bottom line is that every child in foster care deserves a safe, clean place to sleep at night — no matter how difficult placement can be for them.
While our programs at For The Children focus on children who’ve already entered the child welfare system, we are in the prevention space. Our modalities focus on coping strategies, navigating safe relationships, trust and hope. All of these components being critical for children who have experienced such transient living- of no fault of their own.
Our desire is to support children and foster families as they develop, what we hope is a long-term trusting relationship. Join us in our fight against family-induced childhood trauma and be that critically needed safe adult in a vulnerable child’s life.
We can all make a difference.