Texas

Appeals Court Ruling Overturns Some 2015 Foster Care Orders, Upholds Others

The state must continue to provide oversight for private foster care providers, but it will be able to continue employing remote caseworkers and housing foster children in group homes.

In the latest court ruling in a long-running case involving the Texas foster care system, a panel of judges at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld portions of a district judge’s original ruling, while striking down other parts of that decision.

U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack of Corpus Christi deemed the Texas foster care system “broken” back in 2015. She also offered a prescription for fixing it, demanding Texas make some big changes. Since then, there have been two legislative sessions during which lawmakers did address problems in the foster care system. But the state of Texas has also been challenging Jack’s prescription in court, calling it overreach.

Bob Garrett is Austin bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, and says Jack’s original ruling focused on high caseloads that she said led to foster children to receiving less attention; it also contributed to high turnover rates among caseworkers.

“I think one of her second big priorities was that she was horrified by these huge foster group homes, and things going on at night with no adults awake,” Garrett says. 

Jack ordered that large group homes be disbanded. But the appeals court overturned some of that original order. The 5th Circuit court left much of Jack’s original order, requiring greater oversight by the state of private foster care providers, Garrett says.

“She just ordered a whole raft of things … in January of 2018, and I’d say about half of them have survived the appeals process,” Garrett says.

With the new ruling, the state is less restricted than it had been under Jack’s orders. The Texas foster care system will no longer be required to cap caseloads.

“But they said you can have flexible caps that the state needs to determine with a workload study and internal guidelines,” Garrett says. “So, there’s wiggle room there for Texas, but Judge Jack is going to be presiding over that.”

Garrett says state leaders, including Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott, say they were working to make improvements in the foster care system all along. They also stress the importance of states’ rights. They feel they “don’t need a federal judge telling them what to do, and micromanaging it,” Garrett says.

The state will be able to continue using remote caseworkers to check in with foster children once a month; the appeals court ruled that process complies with a federal law requiring caseworker contact with children in the foster care system.

Garrett says Paxton hasn’t decided yet whether to appeal the new ruling to the full 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

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