Foster care quick fix is adding up
June 19, 2007

Child Protective Services is spending $345 a night per child – at least double the cost of the most expensive therapeutic foster care – to house abused children in state offices, and there is no end in sight for the shortage of suitable foster homes, officials said Monday.

Written by Robert T. Garrett, Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Child Protective Services is spending $345 a night per child – at least double the cost of the most expensive therapeutic foster care – to house abused children in state offices, and there is no end in sight for the shortage of suitable foster homes, officials said Monday.

The tally so far this year has exceeded $300,000, agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins said.

The state and about 100 private placement agencies disagree over the causes – the state blames agencies for declining to take in deeply troubled children, while agencies point to newly tightened standards and bureaucratic incompetence. But they agree the system is in crisis.

"The system absolutely is dysfunctional right now," said Irene Clements, vice president for family services at Lutheran Social Services of the South Inc., the state's largest foster-care contractor.

"And a big part of that is the divisions of [the state Department of Family and Protective Services] are not working together; at times, they're working against one another," said Ms. Clements, a 27-year foster parent.

Mr. Crimmins said CPS is doing all it can to ease the crisis.

"We're scouring the state every single day to try to find appropriate placements for each of these kids," he said. "There's not anything that's off the table as far as consideration."

To date, more than 450 children have spent nearly 900 nights in CPS offices because there was no place else for them to go. CPS caseworkers have to watch them in four-hour shifts through the night. Overtime pay for the workers is the biggest factor in the increased cost of care.

At least twice recently, the emergency arrangement has led to violence. On May 30, a melee broke out at CPS' main Dallas office. It took seven police officers to restore order. Three teens were arrested. Earlier in May, a CPS worker in Tarrant County was injured during a similar altercation among two foster teens who were spending the night at a state office.

The children involved are some of the hardest cases CPS sees. Some 76 percent of the foster kids are ages 11 to 18, and half have been through at least 11 foster-care placements.

"These are very, very difficult kids with a lot of issues," Mr. Crimmins said, citing mental retardation, mental illness and severe emotional problems. "They are for the most part very difficult to place. ... Most have been in the system for quite some time."

Ms. Clements and Curtis Mooney, chief executive officer for Houston-based DePelchin Children's Center, said it was no coincidence the department had to start housing children in offices after Jan. 1: That's when new "minimum standards" for foster care took effect, and a state sweep of foster homes recruited by now-defunct Mesa Family Services had just been completed.

The executives of child-placing agencies say the deaths of three foster children in North Texas justified closer scrutiny of contractors and homes but not the lengthy bans on new placements that followed. Some of the bans affected foster parents with excellent track records.

They also said the new standards, which the state will begin to enforce July 1, are discouraging both current and prospective foster parents.

The rules, for example, require fences to be installed around swimming pools. They also cut the number of children whom many foster parents may tend from six to four. And new applicants must pay hundreds of dollars in fees for health and safety inspections; the fees will no longer be waived for completing CPS checklists.

"There's three simple solutions that could solve this crisis," said Kurt Senske, president and CEO of Lutheran, which on any given day manages foster homes caring for 1,360 children and three residential treatment centers caring for 180 foster children.

"One is for CPS to use common sense," he said.

Mr. Senske said the other solutions are for CPS to let private agencies recruit all foster homes and pay to provide more comprehensive services to the most severely troubled children.

"If we would do those three things and they would use common sense in kicking out the bad actors and keeping the good ones, this crisis could be solved – and it's not that hard," Mr. Senske said

Mr. Crimmins, the state spokesman, responded: "We don't consider a fence around a pool to prevent an accidental drowning as lacking common sense. We think it's actually the opposite."

He said the department has no apology for the new standards of the tougher scrutiny triggered by foster children's deaths.

"Facilities that can't meet even the minimum standards will not be allowed to continue to care for children who are the state's responsibility," he said.

He said that private agencies had room for each child who has slept in a CPS office this year but declined to accept the youngsters for reasons only the agencies can explain.

Mr. Crimmins said the department is offering to pay more than the standard reimbursement rate in "child-specific contracts." Such contracts were written for 10 children this year.

Also, the department sought and received permission from the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry to create a new "step down" reimbursement category. Starting this month, CPS can pay $374 a day to treatment centers that will accept children who've repeatedly been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. Right now, $208 is the most it can pay the centers; $164 is the top daily rate for a child in a foster home.

On Sept. 1, average rate increases of 4.3 percent will kick in for all of the 20,000 children who are in paid foster care.

Mr. Crimmins said CPS recently moved seven children who'd been sleeping in offices – and is trying to move 11 more – to the Waco Center for Youth, a psychiatric facility for teens that is run by the Department for State Health Services.

Some Dallas-area child advocates recently asked Carey Cockerell, head of the protective services department, to relax the tighter caps on some foster homes' size as a way of generating extra foster care space, if only temporarily.

Mr. Cockerell, though, said he wouldn't issue any blanket waivers and would consider exceptions only on a case-by-case basis. He has granted 14 of the 19 such requests he received since Jan. 1.

Mr. Mooney, whose DePelchin center cares for about 660 foster children, said foster parents and private agency executives are taking a defensive posture since the post-Mesa crackdown by the state. They fear losing a license or getting sued if they accept a troubled child and problems ensue.

"You've got agencies saying, 'I just don't know if I can take that child. I don't know what will happen,' " he said.

Ms. Clements, of Lutheran, said CPS placement workers push agencies to take children, though information about them is often sketchy or inaccurate.

Mr. Crimmins responded: "We do honestly and accurately describe the conditions of these children."

Ms. Clements shot back: "That's interesting, when they say they're going to bring a 4-year-old boy and they bring a 6-year-old – which just happened to us recently. They can say anything they want at state office. But actual reality is different."

This month, about 66 children have spent at least 163 nights in CPS offices, Mr. Crimmins said.

He said the state has no timetable for ending the practice, though it continues to meet with providers to seek new remedies.

"We do not have a time frame for getting all CPS children out of offices and into placements," he said. "As you know, we are devoting all the resources we can to what is a very complex problem with no easy solutions."

Mr. Crimmins said the department did not receive money in its budget to house children in offices and hotels. He was unable to say whether the $307,000 spent would harm other programs.

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