The 3-year-old was Amari Boone. He and his little brother had gone into foster care three months prior. The man carrying Boone to Cook Children’s medical staff was one of his foster fathers.
When Boone showed up at the emergency room, he was experiencing respiratory failure. His blood oxygen levels were so low he required immediate intubation. Bright red blood leaked from his nose and right ear, and his body was posturing (abnormal, rigid body movement) — both signs of severe brain injury. He also had contusions on his upper right arm.
Less than two hours after his foster father brought him in, staff at Cook Children’s concluded Boone wouldn’t survive his injuries. He was pronounced dead at 1:19 a.m. on April 12 last year. His death certificate said it was a homicide resulting from blunt force trauma to the head.
Boone had broken bones, bruises and facial lacerations from his time in foster care. His court-appointed special advocate, his daycare director, real mother and father and neighbors all made abuse and neglect reports. They spoke out for nearly two months but were disregarded and ignored at every level. Now, a lawsuit filed by Boone’s parents claims an investigation into his death found deadly practices by the ACH Child and Family Services contractor Our Community Our Kids and its employees.
“The skeletal scan taken at Cooks and his autopsy confirmed Amari’s time living in that fictive kin placement had been filled with systematic physical abuse,” according to the lawsuit.
In a statement to the Observer, the family said they are still heartbroken but making sure their son didn't die in vain gives them a reason to get through each day. "The Texas foster care system needs to change," they said. "ACH Child and Family Services cut corners to focus on profits over people, ignored multiple obvious signs and warnings of abuse, and kept haphazard records that resulted in Amari’s death."
For the Boone family, the stage was set for tragedy a long time ago.
Our Community Our Kids became the first contractor to participate in a Texas pilot program for private foster care in 2014. In the six years leading up to Amari's death, the organization received $80-$92 million from state contracts to bring foster care up to the minimum level required by Texas and the U.S. Constitution.
This was prompted about 15 years ago by the Texas comptroller’s investigation into the state’s foster care system and the agency responsible for it, the Department of Family and Protective Service (DFPS). Child Protective Services used a dual system at the time, utilizing state-run and private components. Under this system, foster families and group homes would contract directly with DFPS. CPS employees recruited and trained the families and group homes. Private contractors would provide emergency shelters, residential treatment centers and private child-placing agencies that handled their own recruiting and training.
The investigation found that there were inadequate licensing standards and heavy caseloads for workers who saw high turnover, among other problems. A big takeaway from the investigation was that experiences in state-run foster care can differ drastically from those in private foster care.
Following the investigation, Texas moved more toward privatization in foster care, putting licensing and investigations in the hands of the state and letting private contractors provide the case management. A class action lawsuit filed by Texas foster care children in 2011 highlighted more deficiencies in the state’s system. The push for privatization was even stronger as a result of the class action suit.
“We want to prevent other children entrusted in the Texas foster care system from experiencing the horrific abuse, negligence, and tragic fate of Amari.” – Russell Button, attorney
Eventually, the state wanted to see what private contractors could do in a pilot program, which would later call them Single Source Continuum Contractors.
Our Community Our Kids was one of several private organizations with an eye on the program. In 2014, they nailed down the contract. From 2014-2017, the state was to hand over between $35-$45 million to the organization, depending on the number of children it took in. But, they ended up spending all of that money, as well as $6 million more just setting up the program’s infrastructure.
The lawsuit notes how perfect everything timed out for Our Community Our Kids. The 2011 class action lawsuit went to trial the same year the organization landed its contract. The following year, a verdict against Texas was reached, which “gave the privatization movement more momentum,” according to the lawsuit. When the Foster Care Redesign bill was filed the next legislative session, advocates and supporters of privatization, including Our Community Our Kids, were ready.
By the time the contract was supposed to expire, it had been extended another three years to August 2020. The state had given nearly $2 million to the organization, more than double the sum originally agreed upon, by March 31, 2017.
Wayne Carson, chief operations officer of ACH, testified in favor of the Foster Care Redesign bill, saying turning over case management and placement services to them would allow for better care for the children.
But a subsequent audit of the redesign didn’t show much promise. It found “significant problems with documentation, monitoring, and implementation of quality improvement plans for foster families the organization was supposed to be monitoring,” according to the lawsuit.
Nevertheless, Our Community Our Kids became the first SSCC provider to take over case management of foster care and kinship placements. The organization stressed it had the right people, systems and training in place to do the job.
But just after 40 days in its care, Boone had died.
Since the beginning of Boone’s time with Our Community Our Kids, there were red flags, including spotty documentation of his case. Boone and his brother were put into foster care by their mother because she was having trouble caring for them and was attending drug treatment.
In late January last year, case manager Shelia Roberson placed Boone in the care of Deondrick Foley and his boyfriend, Joseph Delancy.
Roberson, Boone and Foley attended a permanency hearing on Feb. 18, 2020. But Roberson didn’t document anything about the hearing in Boone’s file, including that it ever even happened. During the hearing, an injury on Boone’s leg was brought up. But because Roberson didn’t document this, the person who brought the injury to Roberson’s attention and what exactly was said about it are still unknown.
After the hearing, Roberson told Foley he needed to take Boone to Cook Children’s to be evaluated. The doctors found that just weeks into placement, Boone somehow managed to fracture his pelvis. This fracture was still healing when Boone died. There was little documentation of any of this in Boone’s case file, according to the lawsuit.
When Boone’s real parents visited him in early March that year, they found bruises on his body and suspected abuse. Ariana, Boone’s mother, didn’t want to let him go back into the foster parents’ care. But she didn’t have a choice. She took photos of the injuries and sent them to Roberson.
After receiving photos from Ariana, Roberson had Boone brought back to Cook Children’s to be reevaluated. Lawrence and Frida-Caro didn’t follow up on the situation or make sure Roberson visited Boone in-person to see his living conditions. The results from Boone’s second visit to Cook Children’s in less than a month also never made it into his case file.
On March 11, 2020, Boone’s court-appointed special advocate made a home visit. She reported what she saw to the Texas Abuse Hotline. They claimed the foster parents didn’t allow Amari to drink anything and one of them grabbed him roughly by the arm.
They called Roberson to relay the same information, but she was mad the advocate had reported her observations to the abuse hotline. Defensive over the phone, Roberson didn’t document this call in Amari’s case file, either.
On April 3 that year, the lawsuit alleges, Roberson, Lawrence and Frida-Caro discussed Amari's case and said he’d need to be removed from the foster parents’ care if anything else happened because of all that had transpired in the month before.
But just three days after that meeting, Roberson received a message from one of the foster parents saying Amari had a swollen eye. Looking at photos of Amari's eye, Roberson determined it looked like the result of allergies. She didn’t make a home visit to see him in person.
Amari's foster parents called Roberson the next two days to say he wouldn’t be in daycare. On April 9, 2020, the daycare director sent Roberson a message and photograph of Boone. Roberson noted she’d received this communication, but didn’t document the contents of it. Over the phone that day, the director told Roberson that Amari didn’t seem right, the lawsuit says.
The next day, Amari was brought to Cook Children’s Medical Hospital. Delancy and Foley found Amari that morning under the boys’ playpen, his breathing gargled. He died two days later.
“Had Our Community Our Kids done what it promised Texas it would do, Amari Boone would still be alive,” the lawsuit says.
The Dallas Morning News. The two were ultimately indicted by a grand jury in March and then arrested. Delancy got slapped with one count of injury to a child-serious bodily injury and four counts of injury to a child-bodily injury. Foley got indicted on seven counts of injury to a child-bodily injury.
At a hearing in early May, court monitors said some progress was made in reforming foster care but that there were still concerns, according to The Texas Tribune. The monitors brought with them a new report on the state agencies in charge of foster care. It found that since summer 2019, 23 children have died in the state’s long-term foster care system. Of those, six died from neglect or abuse by caregivers. Five other cases are still under investigation.
“It’s the safety of these children that’s at stake here,” U.S. District Judge Janis Jack said during the hearing. “That’s the most important thing we have … and I expect Texas to live up to its duties to keep these children safe.”
In 2015, the judge had ruled that the Texas foster care system violated children's constitutional rights.
For the last couple of years, on the order of Judge Jack, DFPS and the Health and Human Services Commission were supposed to be addressing a laundry list of reforms for Texas’ foster care system. The state agencies have been held in contempt of course twice for not meeting these reforms.
The court monitors conducted hours of interviews and sifted through tens of thousands of documents for the 387-page report. One of the things they found was that facilities with histories of reported abuse and neglect would be shut down, only to reopen under a new name with the same owners and the same children. This practice has been halted by an emergency rule, but a permanent rule is supposed to go into effect this summer.
Amari's is one of the deaths mentioned in the report.
In a statement to the Observer, an ACH spokesperson wrote: “We remain heartbroken over the loss of Amari Boone and our deepest sympathies are with his family and friends. We are fully cooperating with authorities. Our focus remains on safely helping hundreds of children and families every day who need help more than ever.”
Russell Button, the Boone family lawyer, said their lawsuit can be summed up in one word: heartbreaking. “This innocent little boy would still be alive if the organization had listened to multiple reports of abuse and followed protocols to conduct home visits,” Button said. “We want to prevent other children entrusted in the Texas foster care system from experiencing the horrific abuse, negligence and tragic fate of Amari.”