Mar 3, 2007 3:17 pm US/Central
(AP) DALLAS In the violent moments that led to her death, 6-year-old Katherine Frances never stood a chance.
She suffered a fatal brain injury, police say, when the 14-year-old biological son of her suburban South Dallas foster parents repeatedly body slammed her.
Her death in DeSoto last year, linked by lawmakers to the recent deaths in foster homes of a 3-year-old girl in Arlington and a 1-year-old boy in Corsicana, has prompted a new round of foster-care reform measures in the Legislature.
Two years after lawmakers overhauled and privatized the system, they are looking to redefine the rights of foster children and beef up the state Department of Family and Protective Services' management role. At least 13 children in foster care have died of abuse or neglect by foster caregivers since 2003, according to state figures.
"The oversight that should be taking place has broken down in our foster system," Sen. Jane Nelson said. "We have had some horrible, preventable tragedies."
Katherine died Dec. 5, after her foster brother slammed her to the ground several times, apparently upset that she had wet her bed, police said. The boy faces a murder charge.
His mother, Joyce Burks, faces a charge of injury to a child. She did not seek medical attention for Katherine for at least four hours, instead washing a comforter and pillow the girl vomited on after suffering her injuries, police Capt. Ron Smith said.
The Department of Family and Protective Services has blamed private agency Therapeutic Family Life for mismanaging Katherine's foster care. In a Dec. 21 letter to Therapeutic, a state licensing supervisor wrote that the company's mistakes "directly contributed to ... a foster child dying at the hands of that 14 year old."
A Jan. 22 letter to Therapeutic notified the company that state investigators in other cases had also found inadequate criminal background checks and "little to no support or training for foster parents" who spoke limited English. The state also found instances in which the company's mandatory reports on individual foster families had been cut and pasted from reports on other foster families.
The state has suspended placements into homes run by Therapeutic, said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services. Officials from Therapeutic did not return phone messages.
As a result of Katherine's death, lawmakers are calling for tougher state oversight and more rigorous background checks of foster families. Under current law, placement agencies must examine criminal backgrounds, but they don't have to check whether police have visited a home on disturbance calls.
Police had visited the DeSoto home where Katherine died about four times on unrelated disturbance calls in the year before she was killed, Smith said.
Rep. Helen Giddings said she is drafting a bill that would require foster parents to disclose police visits. It would also create a database by which state workers could track police visits to foster homes, Giddings said.
"Too many children are dying in foster care for legislators not to try and explore ways to offer these children more protection and highlight warning signs," Giddings said.
In addition to better background checks, Nelson's bill broadens the authority of police to remove children from homes in which there are drugs. The current law allows police to turn children over to the state "no questions asked" when meth is involved, Nelson said. Her bill would add crack, cocaine and heroin to that list.
Another provision would require the state to make unannounced inspections each year of every foster home, Nelson said. Currently, state officials inspect about one-third of all foster homes each year.
"They will have them each year, if I can get the money and the budget," Nelson said. "We should never place a child with a family where we have any kind of cause for concern that it might not be a safe environment."
A bill, sponsored by Sen. Carlos Uresti and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, would create a foster children bill of rights. That includes the right to an allowance, to attend religious services of the child's choosing and "to not be locked or otherwise confined in any room."
Such rights are already protected by law or Department of Family and Protective Services policy, but the legislators want to "make sure it's clear to the kids," said Damon Martinez, a legislative aide to Rodriguez.
Critics, while welcoming the attention being paid to foster care reform, say the lawmakers' efforts are belated.
"The state tends to be reactive instead of proactive," said Roy Block, president of the Texas Foster Family Association. "They never give these items attention until there is an issue and right now that's a child's death."
Block said the biggest problem facing the state is a lack of resources. Whereas private agencies typically aim to have less than 20 foster children assigned to a caseworker, state conservatorship caseworkers are overwhelmed with at least twice that many cases, he said.
Family service officials acknowledge as much, saying case loads are "too high."
The best solution might be reducing the need for foster care, Block said.
"We need to do a better job of not bringing kids into foster care," he said. "Let's fix the families."
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