I Was a Foster Child and CPS Needs Real Reform

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IMAGE: “”Draped Reclining Mother and Baby” by Henry Moore, Photo by Peter Rivera, Creative Commons

Just like Child Protective Services can suck for parents, foster care can suck for kids too. As someone who spent my pre-teen and teen years in foster care, this is something that my friends and I know all too well.

The following is a letter that I recently wrote to the Texas Senate Committee regarding recommendations for better protecting children in foster care as a follow up to a judicial hearing that was held on 2/20/2014.

In short, when CPS recognizes its limitations, it can prioritize its services for those who can benefit most, and stop wasting time and energy on families who will not benefit at all, such as in households with responsible marijuana using parents.

You don’t have to have been in foster care to agree with this.

Dear Committee Member,

Thank you for including the well-being of foster youth as a topic of discussion during the 83rd Interim Session on 2/20/2014. By allowing public testimony, those who have experienced the foster care system firsthand were able to share their experiences and provide recommendations for how the system can be improved. This email is a follow-up to that testimony.

In 2013, 17,022 children were removed from their homes by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS 2013 Data Book, pg. 48). This is a 40% increase from the 12,107 children removed in 2009, just 2 years after the DFPS started putting regulations in place to house foster youth in hotels due to a lack of available foster homes or other appropriate placements. This increase in removals is no doubt a result of increased funding provided to the department to hire additional investigators to handle referrals that were being made to the Statewide Intake Hotline.

While we – and by “we” I mean all of the people of Texas – have expanded Child Protective Service’s ability to investigate claims of abuse or neglect and separate families by removing children when they deem it to be necessary, we have not placed a strong enough focus on ensuring the well-being of these children once they have entered the foster care system. We have taken great steps in this direction by doing things such as setting up the Foster Care Redesign program and providing greater regulations for psychotropic medicating of youth, but it is simply not enough. This is apparent not only by the experiences shared by former foster youth on 2/20/14, but also because of the fact that other youth currently in care are still sharing these same experiences and could tell many of the same stories we heard.

I aged out of foster care in 2003 and more than 10 years later the stories of those who recently aged out of foster care are still full of the same pain, hurt, and agony my own friends and I experienced. Not enough is changing. We have to do more. But what?

The most important thing we must do to immediately improve the lives of youth in foster care is to hold the department accountable to children the same way the department holds parents and families accountable during investigations of abuse or neglect.

Actually, the Texas Family Code already requires us to do this, we just have to get better at it. Section 153.002 states that “The best interest of the child shall always be the primary consideration of the court in determining the issues of conservatorship and possession of and access to the child”. When the department removes a child from their family, they claim that the removal is in the best interest of the child and that they (the department) can do a better job ensuring the safety and well-being of the child than the family can.

If a child is being abused or even killed in their care, are they really doing a better job of caring for that child than the family was? Maybe, maybe not. Who gets to decide if the state funded abuse or neglect a child has endured is better or worse than the privately funded family abuse or neglect the child received at home? In some cases children were not even being harmed at home but the department did not agree with some other aspect of the parent’s lives. CPS shouldn’t get to decide when they have so much to lose in the decision. If they admit that they are actually more harmful to a child than their biological family, they open themselves up to lawsuits, and could lose funding. None of that is very good for business, but that can’t be the primary concern when we are talking about children’s lives.

What we need is an outside group, agency, committee, or someone to provide an unbiased investigation of claims of abuse or neglect within the foster care system.

This group would communicate with the courts so that judges can really make decisions about what is in the best interest of the child and the most egregious cases of abuse or neglect within the foster care system would be reported to the legislature directly. This would enable the legislature to be more educated regarding the services being provides by Child Protective Services and make the best decisions to protect Texas’ most vulnerable population. While it would be best to establish this group as a formal entity with a budget, we could surely ask people to take this task on voluntarily, or ask an existing Committee (such as the CPS oversight committee that already exists) to take on this great task.

Another way to protect youth in foster care is to stop depending on CPS to report abuse and neglect within it’s own system. We have to start listening to the children.

When CPS receives a report of abuse or neglect, they usually interview the youth involved. They believe what the youth is telling them and use information gained in these interviews to justify removals of children from their homes. Yet once a youth enters the foster care system, their word is no longer considered reliable.

Youth should be taken seriously when reporting abuse or neglect, regardless of whether they are on medications or considered “problem children”. Youth should also have people who periodically talk with them and ask them if they have been abused or neglected since some youth will not tell unless asked. The best way would be for each youth to have a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) that does not change and that they could bond with. This would allow the youth to feel more comfortable and make them more likely to report abuse or neglect if it occurs. However, random yearly interviews of youth to ask about abuse and neglect, as well as the investigation of all claims of abuse and neglect made by youth is a good start. This could also be done by the group established above to investigate these claims anyway.

We can also teach youth who to contact if they do get up the courage to report abuse or neglect and nothing is done. We can establish a hotline similar to (or maybe even the same as) the abuse and neglect line set up for youth in the custody of the Texas Youth Commission.

We should also teach youth how to contact their legisators if they are being abused and neglected in foster care and no one else will help them. The Texas Health and Human Services, including Child Protective Services, is accountable to the legislature for the quality of services it is providing and if anyone can help a youth who is being abused, is it not their legislators? Hopefully we are able to set up a system in which youth are being taken seriously and being protected so that they have nothing to report, but if they do and no one will listen, wouldn’t you like to know about that?

These are just a few of the many things that can be done to better protect youth in the foster care system. To recap, my recommendations are:

1. Holding CPS accountable the same way we hold parents and families accountable.

2. Creating an outside entity to investigate claims of abuse or neglect within the foster care system

3. Stop letting CPS be the sole reporter of abuse or neglect in the foster care system. Listen to the children.

4. Teach children who to contact if their claim of abuse or neglect is not addressed. Also teach youth how to contact their legislator as a last resort.

While foster care can be a better alternative for some youth, Child Protective Services is unable to recognize its own limitations. Unfortunately, the result is that the department ends up harming some youth instead of helping them. And not only while they are in care, but youth continue to be affected by their foster care experience even once they age out. These youth have a 50% chance of becoming homeless once they leave care, and are usually not considered employable. Only 3% graduate college with some sort of degree, even though Texas offers free tuition to those in the foster care system. Over 200,000 prisoners nationwide admit to spending time in foster care. This is arguably the most at risk of all at risk groups, including 1st generation high school graduates, 1st generation college students, single parent homes, youth of incarcerated or drug addicted parents, and minority youth. All of this should be considered when determining what is in the best interest of youth when determining whether to place a youth in foster care or keep them with their family.

Once Child Protective Services starts to do recognize their limitations and truly focus on what is in the best interest of youth, they will be able to priortize their services for those who truly need them. They will be able to reduce caseloads by not focusing on families unnecessarily, and have a reduced demand for services that will allow them to expect quality and not overburden their service providers.

We may not see all of the results right away, but when CPS can provide better care to the youth in foster care, THEY will start creating better adults. They will start creating successful adults that are not being incarcerated and are able to pursue higher education without other trauma standing in their way.

And that will reduce the number of parents who need CPS servcies in the future, which is really the key to lowering the number of youth who need these services in the first place.