State officials want foster care reform requirements blocked

State officials are asking a federal appeals court to suspend a series of requirements that a federal judge ruled were needed to improve the troubled Texas foster care system.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed the motion Friday at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as state lawyers prepare to appeal a December ruling from U.S. District Judge Janis G. Jack. She found the Texas foster care system unconstitutional and suggested that foster children were better off before they entered the system.

Jack ordered the state to place children in foster group homes with 24-hour supervision and appoint a special master by this month to derive and implement a series of reforms. Among the tasks of the special master are recommending the number of caseworkers for long-term foster care children Texas Department of Family and Protective Services should hire and how to improve the department’s Child Care Licensing unit, which regulates foster-care providers.

Jack rejected a prior request from the state to suspend those requirements last week.

In its most recent filing, the state argues that the requirements set by Jack are vague and that if a child is already in a group home without 24-hour supervision, the child’s sibling wouldn’t be allowed to join him or her in the home. The state also argued that all of its children aren’t at unreasonable risk of harm.

Texas’ foster care system placed in the top half of states nationwide on certain indicators — including child safety — during reviews by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, attorneys for the state said.

“It is true that Texas’s foster-care system needs improvement in certain areas. But the same could be said of most states’ foster-care system,” the filing said.

Although Jack said the system overloaded its caseworkers, the family and protective services department has also repeatedly asked the Legislature for more money to hire caseworkers. “Working to solve an acknowledged problem is the opposite of deliberate indifference,” the state said.

The state said that 57 percent of its caseworkers had the recommended limit of 20 children or fewer. About 27,000 Texas children are in foster care.

The New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights sued the state in 2011, accusing the family and protective services department of insufficient numbers of caseworkers, moving children too frequently and putting them at risk for abuse and neglect.

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