A 15-year-old foster girl was hit by a van and died Sunday after running away from the Houston Child Protective Services office in which she was staying.
The incident is the first such death since the agency began temporarily housing foster children in state buildings and hotels, a last resort that CPS is increasingly being forced to use.
“The loss of the child and injury to another is a terrible accident and tragedy,” said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS. “Nothing is more important to us than the safety of the children in our care.”
For years, CPS has struggled to find enough homes for foster youths, particularly those who are older and have behavioral or psychological problems. Those children need intensive therapeutic foster homes, which include skills training and therapy for youths as well as education and support for foster parents and biological parents, said Madeline McClure, executive director of TexProtects, a Dallas-based child advocacy group.
But because of the shortage of such placements, the most troubled children often end up in offices and motels with caseworkers assigned to supervise them.
CPS has released few details about the runaway girl’s death, but Crimmins said it is under investigation.
“CPS caseworkers are not equipped to care for these kids in a CPS office,” McClure said. “It’s well beyond their capacity, and it is surprising that such a tragedy hasn’t occurred sooner.”
The girl had been staying at the CPS office on Northpoint Drive for several days, Crimmins said. On Saturday, she and a 17-year-old girl also living at the office fled.
The girls ended up almost 4 miles away. According to the Harris County sheriff’s office, the 15-year-old was walking about 3 a.m. in the outside lane of Veterans Memorial Drive when she was hit by a van. She died at the scene.
The other girl suffered minor injuries, was taken to the hospital and was released.
CPS did not provide any details about how the girls left the CPS office or who was responsible for watching them. According to CPS policy, a child must be supervised at all times by at least two adults.
The American-Statesman reported in October that the number of children staying in motels and offices had skyrocketed. Between January and October 2016, 330 foster children — more than four times as many as the year before during the same period — were forced to stay in motels or offices.
In January 2017, the most recent figures available, 24 children stayed at least two nights each in CPS offices or motels, Crimmins said.
“The tragic death of this teenage girl shows that we’re simply not moving fast enough to ensure every child in the care of the state has a safe place to stay,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “But we have a foster care system that is fundamentally broken, and it’s not enough just to recognize it’s broken.”
The last-resort placements have caused numerous safety problems for both children and the CPS employees who care for them. Last summer, two Austin foster girls stole a CPS caseworker’s car, sped up Interstate 35 at 100 mph with police in pursuit and ultimately crashed the car into a fence. No one was hurt.
In July, a girl staying in a hotel broke another girl’s nose while fighting over a Facebook post. The CPS employee jumped in, was hit in the head and suffered a concussion.
In August, a foster child being driven to a CPS office threw a bottle of water at the driver, tried to grab the keys while the car was running and broke the key in the ignition. Another child threatened a caseworker, then wrote profanities on an office wall.
In October, CPS started using armed security guards to protect caseworkers staying with these children, mostly teenagers, at the main CPS office on Summit Drive. The Houston office from which the girls fled did not have a guard, Crimmins said.
“Clearly, temporary locations housing children are not appropriate, and the faster we get them in secure and appropriate facilities, the better,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.
CPS officials hope that redesigning foster care in Texas will help them solve the problem. Through redesign, the state hires a single private contractor responsible for finding foster homes, living arrangements and services for children within a specific geographical area. The state is already doing this in one North Texas region that includes Tarrant and Johnson counties.
Because the contractor — in that case, ACH Child and Family Services — is responsible for the children, they aren’t put in hotels or offices, Crimmins said. Instead, ACH converted a large foster home into a temporary shelter for children who are between placements, he said.
CPS had hoped to implement redesign early this year in a 30-county region in northwestern Texas. But that project is now on hold as the state investigates whether the bidding process was done properly.