Agency to challenge placement suspension, says 4 incidents cited by state were exaggerated
12:00 AM CDT on Thursday, August 30, 2007
By ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – The state has suspended placements of foster children with most foster parents recruited by Lutheran Social Services of the South Inc. in North Texas and Central Texas, citing "serious incidents" in four homes last spring.
While no deaths occurred, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said two young foster children in Lutheran's care sustained serious injuries, and he said there was lax supervision in two other homes.
Lutheran officials said they will challenge the placement suspension.
State spokesman Darrell Azar said the state this summer has closely scrutinized Lutheran – an Austin-based child-placing agency managing 660 foster homes, more than any other contractor in Texas – because of insights gained from difficulties with another private agency, now-defunct Mesa Family Services of Harker Heights.
Mesa recruited the homes where three North Texas foster children suffered fatal head injuries between August 2005 and last December.
"We learned a lesson from that," Mr. Azar said. "When you see multiple, serious incidents within a single [agency], you have to take those seriously and look to see if there's a pattern. Although this is not comparable to the problems you saw with Mesa ... certainly these were some serious problems."
Lutheran officials accused the state of exaggerating the four incidents last spring, all of which they said Lutheran promptly reported, as required, to a Child Protective Services hotline.
Irene Clements, a top Lutheran executive, said the department launched the crackdown against her nonprofit – named three times as the "child placing agency of the year" by the National Foster Parent Association – to retaliate for strong criticisms she and other Lutheran officials have made in legislative testimony and press interviews.
Mr. Azar said criticisms by Lutheran played no role in the state's actions.
In May, Child Care Licensing representatives and contract enforcement officials from the department made unannounced inspections at 73 foster homes managed by Lutheran's Dallas office, 38 homes run by its Mineral Wells office and 30 homes recruited by its Waco office. The 141 affected homes care for 304 foster children.
Officials said they found scores of rule violations, many involving poor training of foster parents and insufficient background checks.
On Aug. 13, the department's licensing division notified Lutheran, which has 19 branch offices across the state, that offices in Dallas, Mineral Wells and Waco had been placed on "evaluation."
The state warned that if the homes and the agency's supervision in those three regions don't shape up quickly, it could put the contractor on probation – the last step before the state suspends or revokes licenses and starts removing children. Improvements must be made by Feb. 29, the state said.
Patrick Crimmins, the department's deputy spokesman, said, "We don't think any of the  children are in any danger at all or at any risk of imminent harm."
However, he said state workers had some concerns about care being given to 30 of the youngsters in North Texas and Waco. "Caseworkers are tracking the cases of all 30 children to ensure their care improves," he said.
Mr. Crimmins said he didn't think the freeze on new placements with Lutheran would affect Child Protective Services workers' decisions about removing children from possibly abusive or neglectful birth families. Together with its Mesquite branch, which was unaffected, Lutheran's Dallas and Mineral Wells offices supply about 11 percent of the private foster-care slots in North Texas.
Emphasis added by H4K Editor