When the clock stops ticking for abused or neglected Texas kids
Whole system's lack of urgency named top reason kids languish in state's permanent conservatorship, study shows
Kids in the Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) system who aren't going home or to a relative's within 18 months of being removed from their homes get automatically lumped by court order into the system's default legal category, where once in, the chances of ever getting out and into a permanent home plummet. When their legal case concludes and they're ordered into the state's permanent managing conservatorship and become what the system calls PMC kids, institutional pressure to find them permanent homes all but vanishes, a study reports.
At last official count, Texas had more than 13,000 kids in PMC who will average 3-1/2 years in foster care before leaving, statistics show.
Texas Appleseed's findings in its two-year study released in November 2010 confirm that for all practical purposes, the clock really does stop ticking the minute they're relegated to PMC status, according to Rebecca Lightsey, Appleseed's executive director.
Court oversight drops to a minimum, advocates and attorneys are routinely dismissed, and the roles of those who remain legally involved become unclear, the study showed. "What's left is an accountability void and a legal system ill-equipped for the kind of advocacy and collaboration needed to find them permanent homes," Ms. Lightsey said.
The study also showed that the Texas law mandating PMC kids' attend their biannual review hearings is largely ignored and that notice of the hearings is so inconsistently executed that the people closest to them rarely attend the hearings either. "Review hearings become even more meaningless and perfunctory without their valuable insight," Ms. Lightsey said. "Consequently, months and even years go by without progress in finding permanent homes for these kids."
"No one was surprised by our findings," Ms. Lightsey said. "And although they're discouraging, with strong judicial leadership and continued active collaboration between system stakeholders, we can improve outcomes for PMC kids." Appleseed's report includes numerous policy recommendations from a multidisciplinary group of legal thinkers formed to study its findings, as well as best practices that could remedy them.
One of the group's suggestions to form a pilot program to test its recommendations is underway. The Children's Commission has formed a workgroup to create a Benchmark Permanency Hearing Pilot in several Texas courts that will be partially funded by Casey Family Programs. Members have met several times to work out the pilot's elements and design and evaluation methods.
The Children's Commission in 2008 asked Texas Appleseed to undertake the study, Improving the Lives of Children in Long-Term Foster Care: The Role of Texas' Courts & Legal System.
Texas Appleseed's lead pro bono partner in conducting the study was Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. Other contributors include McGinnis, Lochridge & Kilgore, L.L.P. and Research & Planning Consultants LP.
See also Texas Appleseed's May 2012 study on permanency, Texas Children in Long-Term Foster Care: Outcomes, Court Hearing Practices, and Court Costs.
Appleseed Permanency Project
Getting children out of long term foster care
Texas Appleseed is spearheading the development of a pilot court project to test some of the recommendations from its November 2010 study that identified numerous system weaknesses that contribute to Texas foster children getting stuck in long term care. (click here to view report). The study focused on children who are in the state's permanent managing conservatorship (PMC), which is a legal category into which Texas foster children default when their legal case concludes and they are not reunited with their families or on the way to adoption. Having no active court case reduces the legal oversight of these children's progress toward permanency, and the study found that an accompanying lack of urgency to get them to permanency begins to prevail.
The proposed pilot project will consist of implementing more robust oversight of PMC cases in a few selected courts that would test certain practices, such as more frequent hearings that include the foster child and more built-in accountability measures to encourage progress toward permanency. Cases would be categorized differently to distinguish their level of complexity to structure and schedule hearings accordingly. A multidisciplinary workgroup is currently developing the project's design according to goals summarized as follows:
- Ensure that finding a true permanent home continues for PMC children.
- Placement review hearings
- develop a timeline that encourages maximum stakeholder involvement for the duration of the child's stay in foster care.
- utilize established review criteria to encourage maximum accountability.
- Permanency plan
- Develop realistic and reasonable permanency plans when a child first enters PMC.
- Monitor it closely and revise when necessary.
- Clarify stakeholders' roles to maximize accountability toward permanency goals.