The foster-care fiasco in Texas

Jon Cassidy
Posted: Apr 18, 2016 7:00 AM
The foster-care fiasco in Texas

Haruka Weiser, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Texas, was strangled to death by a 17-year-old runaway, police charge.

Texas is in shock over two recent brutal homicides – the strangulation of 18-year-old University of Texas freshman Haruka Weiser on April 5, and the death of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright of McKinney on March 13, allegedly at the hands of her mother’s drug-addict boyfriend.

The link between those crimes is Child Protective Services, a unit of the state Department of Family and Protective Services, which raised the 17-year-old suspected of killing Weiser and did nothing to protect Wright, even after an investigator found her with bruises around her eyes.

Child Protective Services failed in both cases, but the failure is not one of execution. It’s not something that a new administrator (like the two appointed this week), or a new policy, or a little more money is likely to fix.

The problem is with the very idea of saving children by taking them from their parents, according to Molly McGrath Tierney, director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services.

“I run a well-oiled machine that does an outstanding job of taking other people’s children. It does it with tremendous efficiency. I regret that this success has not also resulted in us actually helping people,” Tierney said during an 11-minute 2014 TED Talk. “Now, abuse and neglect is awful for children. It’s terrible, absolutely. When we also then take them from their families, we’re digging a wound so deep I don’t believe we have a way of measuring it.”

Just measuring the extent of the problem has been a problem in Texas, which has consistently underreported the number of children in the state’s foster care system.

Contrary to the claims of Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, Texas does not “bring children into care at a substantially lower rate than the national average.”

That’s what the official statistics show. But what the state actually does is refuse to count all the children in informal foster care placements with family members.

The Texas Supreme Court’s Children’s Commission published a report in December that contains a shocking figure in its very first paragraph.

Officially, Texas took 17,357 children away from their parents in 2014 – that’s the figure reported to the federal government.  But according to the report, there were another 34,000 placements with family members known as parental child safety placements (PCSPs).

This is when officials coerce parents into placing their children with relatives under the threat of simply taking them away.

This “informal” arrangement appears to meet the federal definition of foster care, which is “24 hour substitute care for all children placed away from their parents or guardians and for whom the State agency has placement and care responsibility.” The key phrase there is “placement and care responsibility,” not custody, yet Texas doesn’t report these arrangements to the federal government.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, cautioned that “Texas is almost certainly not the only state that cheats with various forms of informal foster care, or in other ways. In fact, I know that Kansas has its own way of cheating. But I doubt that there are many states that cheat to the extent of hiding nearly two-thirds of their entries into foster care.”

According to the report, roughly 4,000 of those informal placements later became official foster care placements. That still leaves 30,000 foster care placements that Texas simply defined into non-existence.

If you add those figures to the official ones, you find that Texas is taking children away from their homes at rates 60 percent higher than the national average, Wexler said.

The report from the Children’s Commission explains how advocates such as McCown have been able to claim that Texas doesn’t remove many children, when in fact the total number of kids in the system is still the second highest in the country. The official removal rate figures represent just a fraction of the kids who are taken from their parents.

The real dimension of the problem is this: Of all the foster care children in the country waiting to be adopted, one in six is in Texas.

This points to a system that is simply overloaded. It’s why the CPS employee charged with investigating Leiliana Wright’s welfare reportedly had 70 cases to look after – six times higher than industry guidelines.

The central finding of the federal judge who took control of the state’s system in December is that Texas is seizing more kids than it has safe places to put them. Now it’s clearer than ever that the reason isn’t a lack of resources, a lack of beds, a lack of foster parents with open hearts – it’s that CPS is taking way too many kids that would be better off at home.

Most of the kids have never been physically harmed by their parents; 69 percent of “confirmed” child abuse cases in Texas last year were nothing more than “neglectful supervision.” As Austin mother Kari Anne Roy found, simply letting your kids play outside unsupervised can trigger an intrusive investigation.

The more time that social workers spend investigating this kind of alleged neglect and filling out paperwork and checklists, the less time they have to intervene in the worst cases, where they might actually do some good.

Now Gov. Greg Abbott has decided that the agency, which already wields a heavy hand, should become even more interventionist. Abbott has pushed the agency into drastically reducing family placements, despite studies showing them to be safer and less traumatic than institutional foster care.

Instead, some children are sleeping in CPS office buildings, while many more children are being dumped into orphanage-type facilities.

Meechaiel Criner, 17, has been charged with murder.

As an institution, foster care produces damaged human beings.

“Kids that grow up in foster care are overwhelmingly destined for the penitentiary, the morgue, or the child welfare system when their own kids come into foster care,” Tierney says.

Major studies have found the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among children exiting foster care is double that for Iraq War veterans. More than half develop mental health problems, and a third report maltreatment by foster parents (and more by other foster children). Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. prison population under 30 spent time in foster care.

One product of the CPS system is Meechaiel Khalil Criner, the 17-year-old homeless runaway suspected of raping and strangling Weiser.

Criner’s case is extreme, with allegations of abuse against his caretakers dating back to when he was six months old. When he was three, he was taken from an abusive mother with a string of drug and prostitution arrests, and spent nine months in CPS custody before he was placed in the care of his grandmother. Just before his 11th birthday, he was taken from her care over facial bruises his grandmother reportedly inflicted in a “whooping.”

He was apparently in and out of state custody after that, running away three times over the last 14 months.

Without excusing or convicting Criner, and without questioning CPS’s decision to take him away from his grandmother, it’s worth noting what he thought of his time in foster care.

“They say CPS is supposed to be a good place, but it’s not,” he told his school paper as a sophomore. “At first, it didn’t seem that bad. But as the days passed on, it turned out that foster care is almost – well, almost a prison.”

Of all the horrendous things that defined Criner’s life, being taken from his grandmother at age 10 and put into foster care was to him the worst.

An MIT researcher published massive studies in 2007 and 2008 comparing foster children to similarly maltreated children who had been left in their homes. He found that children left in their homes were less likely to get pregnant as teenagers, less likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system, more likely to hold down a job, and “that children placed in care have two to three times higher arrest, conviction, and imprisonment rates than children who remained at home.”

Simply put, the foster care system is so harmful that it should be kept as small as possible, Wexler says, reserved for those children facing immense danger at home, or who simply have no other option.

“Study after study has found that kinship-care placements – licensed or unlicensed – are more stable, better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called stranger care,” Wexler says.

But the status quo is easier for politicians to defend, even in the face of mounting evidence that it damages the humanity of its occupants and that no changes implemented by CPS have any meaningful effect on the number of child fatalities.

The Texas Tribune has documented how intense pressure from Abbott’s office has led CPS to cut informal family placements. From January 2015 to January 2016, PCSPs fell by 56 percent, while CPS removals spiked by 37 percent. The one figure drives the other. Social workers who’ve been discouraged from placing kids with family members are formally seizing more children.

The state has also drawn up an extensive new list of requirements for family placements, including background checks, fingerprinting, home inspections, and more. That all sounds fine, until you consider the point of view of the overwhelmed front-line worker, whose path of least resistance is to dump a kid into a group home or treatment center when spots are available, or to do nothing when they’re not.

Figures obtained by the Dallas Morning News suggest that’s already happening. Formal removals are up by 500 children a month, while family placements are down by 1,300 a month.

Abbott’s policy is a response to two tragic cases in which children died while staying with relatives. But his conclusion flies in the face of extensive research.

John Specia, who recently resigned as head of the Department of Family and Protective Services, tried to tell the governor about this. As the Tribune reported:

“Leaders at the Department of Family and Protective Services … cautioned the governor’s staff that restricting the pool of parental child safety placements by eliminating families with criminal or CPS history could strain the foster care system greatly to get rid of a few bad apples. An internal agency review last year found serious safety concerns with just 0.05 percent of parental child safety placements.

“‘PCSPs are safe,’ Specia wrote in a presentation to the governor’s office on May 7. He pointed out that restricting those placements would likely increase the number of child removals, placing higher demand on the state’s foster care system. That would cost an average of $42,000 per child, Specia wrote.”

Projecting out from a 500-child-per-month increase, that’s an additional $250 million a year spent expanding a broken system that inflicts more physical and sexual abuse than the families it’s meant to replace.

A six-year research project by Pew Charitable Trusts and Generations United came to a clear conclusion on whether extended families provided better homes than traditional foster care.

“Children in relative foster care tend to be just as safe as or safer than children placed with non-relative foster families. Data indicate that foster children living with relatives experience abuse or neglect at lower rates than children with unrelated foster families,” the Pew study concluded.

Pew went on to say that placements with relatives foster placements “tend to be more stable than placements with unrelated foster families. Children placed with relatives generally have fewer moves while in foster care. Siblings are less likely to be separated when placed in relative foster care.”

The Pew project also noted that “relatives are, in fact, willing to adopt or become permanent guardians to their kin when not forced to give up critical financial assistance in order to do so.”

Yet Texas presses on, expanding a system that Tierney says simply isn’t capable of providing what’s needed.

“This dismantling of families has enormous consequences,” Tierney says. “Kids that grow up outside of families, they don’t master the things that can only be learned in that context, like who to trust, and how to love, and how to take care of yourself. And that frankly, does more damage than the abuse and neglect that brought the kid to my attention in the first place. And that’s when I understood: The reason child welfare isn’t working is because there are children in foster care. It’s not that government is doing it badly. It’s that foster care is a bad idea.” 

Contact Jon Cassidy at or @jpcassidy000.