Texas children sleeping in state offices and other temporary living situations continue to plague the state’s child welfare agency as the number of specialized foster care homes diminishes.
The number of children who were forced to sleep in Child Protective Services offices, hotels and shelters for at least two consecutive nights as they awaited foster placement climbed to 50 over the course of April, according to new data by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
The problem continues even as Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has directed more than $500,000 to expand foster bed capacity statewide while the state agency has entered into almost two dozen agreements with community partners to offer temporary beds.
Even though the number of children sleeping in offices has declined since last year, the goal is to have no children in such arrangements, and anything short of that has been disappointing for officials.
“Along with a foster child’s safety, there is nothing as important in foster care as the best, most appropriate placement tailored for that specific child,” said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the agency. “We literally work on it around the clock, seven days a week.”
Fewer beds for foster children
Between September and April, 196 children statewide were forced to sleep in offices, hotels and shelters as they awaited foster homes, compared with 384 children during the same period last year.
Abbott has spoken with Hank Whitman, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, to identify the reason for the spike in April and what more can be done to resolve it, Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said. But she said the governor is also pleased with the “substantial improvements DFPS has made.”
Foster children without placements continue to be a problem for the state because more children are being removed from abusive homes without enough foster beds for them, according to the agency. The problem worsened after Hurricane Harvey, which shuttered two residential treatment centers that typically house foster care children with health and behavioral needs. Twenty-nine beds were lost, and since then the state has lost 106 beds at two other centers that relinquished their licenses for reasons unrelated to the storm.
Part of the challenge of finding enough foster beds is that agency officials don’t choose homes for children, Crimmins said. Foster providers can be resistant to taking in teens, runaways and sibling groups, and in some cases, judges might require a specific placement for a child that isn’t immediately available.
To curb the number of children sleeping in state offices, the governor’s office provided funding in June 2017 for a program that prohibits participating foster care providers from rejecting children. Each of the 22 beds in the program, in Houston, Abilene, San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, cost the state $400 per night, and they are nearly 95 percent full.
“Most people believe that CPS can pick and choose placements among our foster care providers, but in reality the providers select the child they want to care for, and in many cases they decline to select a child we are trying to place,” Crimmins said.
Along with the governor’s program, the child welfare agency has entered into 20 agreements with nonprofits and churches to provide temporary beds.
Foster Village in Dripping Springs is the first in Central Texas to launch such an initiative at no cost to the state, and the nonprofit has a bedroom that can sleep as many as five children up to age 18 for as long as 48 hours.
“The facility is phenomenal. It brings a much more calming and homelike setting instead of the drab walls of an office,” said Lindsey Van Buskurk, the CPS deputy director for Central Texas. “As much as we have tried to make the office kid friendly, it’s still an office building. There’s no way around it.”
Eleven children in Central Texas slept in state offices and temporary living situations between February and April.
The bedroom in Foster Village stands in stark contrast to the living conditions of a CPS office building. Instead of linoleum floors, drop ceilings and fluorescent lights, the room has wood floors, fluffy pillows and blankets, and it is flooded with sunlight from a window that overlooks trees and fields. The 2,000-square-foot home opened in November with a full kitchen, a play room with toys and books, rooms full of clothing and supplies, and space for caseworkers who must supervise the foster children at all times.
Chrystal Smith and Ellen Evans, former foster parents, started the nonprofit in 2016 with the goal of providing donations and services for foster parents, but after hearing about children sleeping in offices, they were quick to lease a space that could include a bedroom for children without placements. The nonprofit finalized its agreement with the state agency this month.
“It’s just adding additional layers of trauma on an already traumatic situation,” Smith said of housing foster children in state offices. “It’s not ideal for the kids; it’s not ideal for the caseworkers. It doesn’t feel dignified.”
Smith, who has a degree in child development and has taught court-mandated parenting classes, said hotels might be a better alternative to state offices but can be traumatic to foster children who have been trafficked.
Although Foster Village doesn’t have to meet the same rigorous requirements of a foster home, it must have insurance coverage for injuries, allow CPS to regularly inspect for hazards, and conduct background checks on staffers and volunteers who will come in contact with children in the state’s custody.
The nonprofit, which operates on a $200,000 annual budget and relies heavily on community volunteers, hopes to replicate its model in Waco and North Carolina.
But Smith and Evans recognize that their temporary living situation is no replacement for a more permanent home for foster children, especially among their relatives or eventually with their birth parents.
“Our hope is that by providing a way for the community to get involved and becoming that bridge between fostering and the community, we are recruiting more foster families at the same time,” Evans said.