This year highlighted how hard it is to be a kid in Texas.
It started with the fallout from a federal lawsuit accusing Texas’ foster care program of severely violating children’s rights. In her blistering December 2015 ruling, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack called the state’s foster system a place where “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm,” giving two children’s rights experts six months to come up with a solution.
In the meantime, the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services scrambled to make up for a $40 million budget shortfall, paired with a serious shortage of safe foster homes and an overworked staff. The situation worsened after reports trickled out of DFPS’ Child Protective Services arm showing that caseworkers routinely failed to check in on almost 1,000 of Texas’ most at-risk children in foster care. And that was just the number of children deemed to be at “immediate risk of physical or sexual abuse” — in total, internal reports showed that some 5,000 Texas children who lived in homes with “suspected abuse” were going for long periods of time without critical face-to-face visits with caseworkers.
Despite his perfunctory outrage over the matter, Abbott and his fellow conservative state leaders recoiled when Judge Jack’s experts eventually unveiled 56 specific recommendations to overhaul the floundering foster care program. Attorney General Ken Paxton called the advice (which included the totally uncontroversial suggestions that CPS hire more child welfare workers, regulate the size of foster group homes, and better protect child victims of sexual abuse) “impractical” and ultimately a waste of taxpayer money. At the end of 2016, most of these foster kids are still living in dangerous homes.
Meanwhile, another investigation (this one spearheaded by the Houston Chronicle) uncovered yet another state department that had effectively ignored tens of thousands of the state’s most vulnerable kids. According to a series of damning reports by the daily, the Texas Education Agency had effectively ordered local school districts to cap enrollment of special education students at 8.5 percent — way below the national average. That means as many as a quarter million students with disabilities may have been jettisoned from the program for no identifiable reason (other than perhaps to bring costs down), denying them critical in-school services like therapy, counseling and one-on-one tutoring. The year ended with the feds swooping in to collect hundreds of emotional testimonials from parents, teachers, and the students themselves to understand how the situation got this out of hand. If we’re lucky, federal intervention could jolt the TEA into reform. If not, Texas’ top grown-ups may need to be held back a year. — AZ