Courts

'Window Dressing': Agreement in Child Welfare Lawsuit Leaves Kids Unprotected, Advocates Say

State officials and foster kids' attorneys reached an agreement to address the 400-plus kids forced to sleep in CPS offices Thursday. Advocates say it will leave kids open to continued abuse.
State officials and foster kids' attorneys reached an agreement to address the 400-plus kids forced to sleep in CPS offices Thursday. Advocates say it will leave kids open to continued abuse. Getty Images
Every night in Texas, about 400 kids have to sleep in makeshift dorms in Texas Department of Family and Protective Services offices. This group of kids without a foster placement are especially vulnerable to overmedication and physical and sexual abuse, according to a recent court monitor’s report ordered by a federal judge.

For a decade, lawyers have been fighting DFPS, the parent agency over the state's Child Protective Services agency, for improved conditions and oversight of the foster care system. Last Thursday, attorneys and state officials reached a landmark agreement in the lawsuit that has been pending since 2011.

According to court filings, the children's attorneys and state officials will work together to create a panel of experts. This panel will study the state’s foster care system and identify what issues have led to hundreds of kids sleeping in DFPS’ offices without foster placement or proper care.

Then, the panel will make recommendations to the state as to how they can fix the problem and better protect those kids in line to be fostered.


But advocates say the agreement marks a worrying turn in the legal proceedings.

“That’s what they always do. They make it look like they’re resolving something when it doesn’t give anyone the power to resolve anything,” said Joyce MacMillan, executive director of JMacForFamilies, a leading advocacy group pushing for restructuring of child welfare systems nationwide.

The issue? The agreement lacks any binding mechanism requiring the state to enact reforms.

“That agreement is window dressing. They make it look like inside, behind that window, is a store. But when you get inside it’s an abandoned building.” - Joyce MacMillan, JMacForFamilies

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While DFPS and Health and Human Services agree to “cooperate in good faith with the Expert Panel, and consider the recommendations,” according to court documents, no state agency or official has to “accept the recommendations in whole or in part, and the recommendations will impose no obligations upon defendants."

MacMillan said the toothlessness and lack of commitment in the agreement reflects child protective and foster care agencies’ tactics with parents fighting for custody. “[CPS] will tell parents, ‘Hey you’re going to lose, but if you settle with us, we’ll make sure you see your kids 12 times a year on average.’ But then it’s not enforceable in court. And it never, ever happens,” said MacMillan.


Similarly, MacMillan explained, Texas appears to be offering a consolation prize to the kids’ attorneys, without committing to any real change.

Neither DFPS nor Health and Human Services responded to requests for comment.

“That agreement is window dressing. They make it look like inside, behind that window, is a store. But when you get inside, it’s an abandoned building,” MacMilan said.

The agreement marks a departure from the recent series of contentious back-and-forths in the lawsuit.

Earlier this month, the presiding federal judge excoriated DFPS officials who blamed foster placement delays on regulations imposed by her court. Some 10 days later, DFPS officials claimed certain court-ordered protections for foster kids didn’t extend to those residing in DFPS offices. The assertion “infuriated” the judge, a local newspaper reported.

DFPS has dismissed criticism, and spokesperson Patrick Crimmins told the newspaper his department was "100% willing to sit down and begin constructive discussions." 
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Michael Murney is a reporting fellow at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney