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Federal court hears evidence in Texas foster care contempt hearing

The Earle Cabell Federal Building that houses the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas in downtown Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
The Earle Cabell Federal Building that houses the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas in downtown Dallas.

In a soft and sad voice, Jackie Juarez described her life after she entered the state's foster care system in a federal court room in Dallas.

She spent seven years being passed between group homes, hospitals and finally the state’s unlicensed placements. Her time bouncing from placement to placement exemplified a near perfect encapsulation of problems the state is in court defending itself over.

Lawyers for the state’s foster care system are trying to fend off contempt complaints stemming from alleged failures to observe several court orders from federal court monitors and plaintiffs in a case that stretches back 12 years.

In court documents, lawyers for current and past foster children said the state has poor abuse and neglect investigations into intellectually disabled youth, overprescribes powerful psychotropic drugs, has overburdened case workers with large caseloads and extra shifts in unlicensed placements, has not fully informed kids about their rights and how to report abuse, fails to train workers in sexual abuse recognition, and who then fail to provide caregivers with sexual abuse histories of youth. The hearing is expected to last all week.

Lawyers leaned forward to listen to the now 18-year-old Juarez speak about how at one facility staff would tell misbehaving youth that they were there because their parents didn’t want them. She was 11.

She told the court hearing about the year her case worker gave her an iPod for Christmas. The iPod was Wi-Fi enabled and could receive texts. Before long a male staff member started texting her.

“He would say that I look pretty and that he liked my personality.”

Before long he was texting her several times each day. She was 15.

When she reported it, they didn’t fire the man — they took the iPod.

The male staff member got another girl to fight her, and Juarez was moved to a psychiatric hospital, she testified.

The episode highlighted persistent problems in the state’s Provider Investigations, a section of the Health and Human Services Commision that investigates group homes that deal with youth and adults with disabilities.

The section was broken off from another department, and the scope of its work increased past the point of its staffing abilities resulting in eight years of backlogged investigations. It can take months for an investigation to happen — which violates the federal court’s orders — which mandate that investigations begin within 72 hours — 24 hours for serious allegations of abuse and neglect.

“We are very focused on filling the vacancies. That’s been a priority of ours,” testified Stephen Pahl, deputy executive commissioner for regulatory services.

Pahl, who has been in the job for about two years, was grilled about the eight year problem.

Federal court monitors filed a report in September pointing to multiple issues with these investigations from the time start them, to the lack of documentation when a case is ruled out, to several cases where investigators just got it wrong.

“Child C” listed in the report made a dozen outcries of neglect, sexual and physical abuse while staying at C3 Academy. One investigation was delayed as long as a year. In her time there, she was tasered and dropped off at a hospital with a broken jaw.

Abuse was a staple of Juarez’s experience after getting out of the psychiatric hospital. She was then a Child Without Placement (CWOP) or housed in unregulated, unlicensed, and what federal monitors have called unsafe housing in hotels and state offices.

Juarez was in seven different CWOP placements during this time. The hotels would have four beds for 10 children. She reported fights with other kids, female children texting adult men they met on social media to come pick them up, and overworked case workers.

“No caseworkers liked doing CWOP,” she said. The four-hour shifts were often tacked on to already full caseloads. One case worker testified she drove 19 hours in a day, more than 700 miles, because of CWOP.

Juarez talked about being in placements and forced to take as many as eight different drugs a day, from low-level benadryl to more powerful psychotropics.

“They would make me sleepy, and I would throw up every night,” she said.

Her complaints were ignored by staff. A doctor told her to “just give it time to adjust.”

She had been on the drugs for three years at that point.

Attorney's representing foster children have repeatedly questioned how the state provides oversight on prescriptions, implying strongly in one hearing that the system was a rubber stamp for powerful, mood altering drugs.

“No one ever questions the medications,” Juarez said.

Juarez weaned herself off the drugs cold turkey, she said. She’s now in extended foster care, living more independently in a program — finishing her G.E.D. (she said she only got to 8th grade while in foster care). She hopes to go to college.

“Kids need to be heard, and things need to change,” she told the court, her voice wavering. “Everybody tells you ‘Oh, CPS is going to take care of you.’ But just like they let me down. They let a lot of kids down.”

Copyright 2023 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.