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Beth Cortez-Neavel is a contributing reporter covering Travis County for the Austin Monitor. Beth works in words, data, photography and radio. She's a long-time Austinite living in the District 1 area.
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Travis County battles shortage of foster homes
There is a severe lack of homes for children and youth in Travis County’s foster care system, according to the judges and officials who administer the system. They say the situation has become critical, to the point that children are often moved out of their home community and placed in homes that are many miles and hours away from familiar surroundings.
District Judge Darlene Byrne, who hears many of the county’s child welfare civil court cases, said children are held too long in limbo for homes. She said they are staying in temporary emergency shelters, which are often at capacity, for months. Children are stuck in psychiatric hospitals past the time they should be discharged. Youth accused of crimes are being held in juvenile detention before sentencing, because there is nowhere else for them to go.
The Department of Family and Protective Services, which is the state’s agency in charge of investigating cases of abuse and neglect and removing the involved children from their homes, reported that there were 438 children from the county in foster care as of August 2014, with only 37.2 percent of all children placed within Travis County. That means a large percentage of children are living miles away from their home communities and support networks. In such situations, judges are ordering the state to pay more for services for individual children.
“We’re having to place them further and further away from their home environment, like hours away,” Byrne said. “It may not be the best placement fit, but it’s the only placement that’s available after searching 20, 30 places.”
Much of this, Byrne said, is due to the hesitancy of families in the area to take on the responsibility of fostering a child after recent media coverage of child deaths in the foster care system. They are especially wary of fostering children who have been accused of any level of crime or have need for intensive psychiatric care.
“Could you imagine right now, after all the newspaper articles that have skewered a few parents and lambasted the department (of Family and Protective Services), would you want to be affiliated with that organization and be a foster parent?” Byrne said. “I mean there’s this knee-jerk reaction, people are fleeing. It’s hard to be a foster parent … It’s an interesting tightrope balance … These are this community’s kids and it is our responsibility to give them an opportunity to live in safety and have their basic needs met.”
Renee Price of Austin’s foster and adoption group Caring Family Network, an affiliate of the Houston-based Depelchin Children’s Center, said it’s also difficult to find foster homes for teenagers, for babies whose parents are working with the state to bring their children back home and for children who exhibit certain trauma-induced behaviors like running away, abusing drugs or sexually acting out. Price said Caring Family Network also shies away from taking on certain cases because the families they verify don’t have the resources to care for children with such intense needs.
“We might have to say no (to taking a child) before we even approach a foster parent, because there are certain situations, behaviors that are not safe in a foster home,” Price said. “If we have someone actively suicidal, for instance — it’s a foster home, there’s not 24-hour awake staff, and so we can’t keep that child safe from harming themselves. If we’re going to say no to a child … it’s going to be because we feel like we can’t keep that child safe. It’s not about being not willing to work with that type of child or that type of issue.”
A judge, like Byrne, ultimately determines the best placement for children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, while the parents either work to get the child back or relinquish their legal rights as guardians and turn responsibility over to the state. Children can be placed in foster homes verified directly by the state or through private child-placing agencies, which contract with the state to provide foster and adoption services.
Byrne said she eventually finds a placement for each child. But more and more often, she said, that involves ordering the state to individually contract with facilities not already under contract to take a child, because it is the best fit she can find where the child’s needs will be met.
Most foster families, treatment centers and group homes are paid a daily rate by the state to take care of a child, based on the level of services each child needs. A foster family taking in a child with basic needs, like supervision and access to medical care, currently receives $23.10 from the state per day to care for that child. A residential treatment facility gets $45.19. A foster family with a child who needs intense care — 24-hour supervision, highly structured days, caregivers with special training and limited access to triggering environments — gets a state per diem of $92.43. The most a facility is paid for a child with intense needs is $374.33.
Often, Byrne said, these individualized contracts involve a court order for the state to pay more than its established daily rate. Byrne said she does not track the exact number, but is ordering more of these contracts than she’s had to in the past. Byrne said she has ordered 20 to 25 contracts with the state within the past four months, but that doesn’t always mean the state obliges. The Department of Family and Protective Services said there are currently two such contracts with residential treatment facilities for children in Travis County.
“We typically have a loving parent to send (children) home to,” she said. “But when parents have in essence thrown their child away and said to the state of Texas, ‘You raise them, they’re too much trouble,’ then what does the state do? Isn’t it supposed to be as good if not better than an impoverished parent that’ll take their child home? My goodness, we’re the state of Texas. Can’t we do it as good if not better than a parent making minimum wage? I think we should (find children homes) and if we don’t, shame on us.”
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Travis County: Travis County is the urban county that includes, notably, Austin.