State District Judge Carole Clark of Tyler recently declared the foster care system 'broken.'

East Texas jurist also directs state to place siblings together

06:29 AM CST on Tuesday, November 21, 2006
By ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN An East Texas family law judge has ordered the state to stop placing abused and neglected children from Smith County in foster homes outside her area.

State District Judge Carole Clark of Tyler, who recently declared the foster care system "broken," also directed that siblings be kept together except in very rare cases.

Though Texas has a shortage of foster parents in nuclear families, the state interprets federal rules as actively discouraging placements of children in group homes of seven to 12 foster children and in larger institutions, Judge Clark said Monday.

"They have interpreted the federal mandates to say 'family foster home' trumps everything else," she said.

The ruling does not apply beyond Smith County. But it highlights strains in the foster care system as newly hired child-abuse investigators remove more children from homes.

Troubles in the system including the recent deaths of two young boys after they were removed from their homes also has raised questions about the state's ability to regulate about 300 private entities it pays to arrange foster care. Lawmakers have indicated they may reconsider last year's mandate to fully privatize the system.

Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the state Department of Family and Protective Services, said agency lawyers are reviewing Judge Clark's standing order, which she issued Friday. While officials haven't decided whether to appeal, "in the meantime, we'll comply with the order."

Judge Clark, a Republican, said she tried unsuccessfully in the past month to nudge state and federal child-welfare officials to resolve conflicts between "best practices," such as placing children with small families who can give them a lot of attention, and choosing a larger setting that allows brothers and sisters to stay together in their communities.

"I decided I had had enough," Judge Clark said. "The best interest of the child is everybody's best practice. Somebody locally needs to sort out these things."

Her order required that children removed from abusive or neglectful homes in Smith be placed in foster care there or in a contiguous county.

Siblings are to be "placed together as may be consistent with the best interest of each child involved," it says.

Judge Clark allowed more distant placements in special circumstances, such as when children of methamphetamine addicts are born premature and need treatment at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, or if all nearby foster care slots are full when a child is removed at night or on weekends.

But her intent was unmistakable: Fill more of the beds in group homes or other institutions in or near Tyler before sending local kids to faraway foster families.

There are "unused beds" in the larger operations, she said Monday. However, she said, "They have 'institution' in their license, so they are persona non grata to CPS."

Judge Clark, a former CPS worker, said she can't quantify how frequently Smith County children are sent long distances, to foster homes in places such as San Antonio and Corpus Christi. Nor could she say how often siblings are split.

She said both events are "common," adding: "If it's more than one, it's too many for me."

She said children of methamphetamine addicts often have no relatives other than their siblings. Remote placements pose hardships for parents, lawyers and court-appointed advocates who need to see the children, she said.

Joyce James, an assistant commissioner of the state department who runs CPS, acknowledged: "We have work to do."

However, Ms. James said, preliminary results of a review of Tyler-area placement decisions show that "a pretty high percentage of children" are placed in Smith or contiguous counties.

While Ms. James concedes that many parts of Texas don't have enough foster and adoptive parents, she said not everyone grasps how the system works.

"We can't just pick slots," she said. "We have to contact the providers, and they have to be willing to take the children. We can't say, 'You have a bed, you must take our kid.' It doesn't work that way."

Ms. James said she does not think child-placing agencies are licensing unsuitable foster homes.

"I know there's been some unfortunate types of situations with the licensing of families, but for the most part I would say we have good foster families," she said.

She said federal law requires children's individual needs to be met, if possible, in the "least restrictive setting." For Ms. James, a foster family is ideal because the children can bond with the foster parents, not constantly changing "shift staff," as in group homes.

However, Judge Clark says social changes such as the rise of two wage-earner families have shrunk the pool of traditional foster families. Though government policies still favor such homes, too many involve "professional foster parents" who are in it just for the money, the judge says.

Such parents often accept more children with more problems than they can handle, she said.

Judge Clark has convened local child-welfare workers and volunteers to try to envision a better system. The group will host a second summit on Dec. 1 in Tyler.

She wants to seek the Legislature's approval to try a pilot program.

Smith County officials would have more say over what happens to abused children, assess their needs more thoroughly before they are matched with a foster caregiver and obtain quicker decisions from CPS, she said.

Ms. James expressed little enthusiasm for such a system but said CPS should strive to "really work with local communities to improve the system." She vowed to collaborate to improve record-keeping on foster children, recruit more foster parents and expand programs to prevent child abuse.


{WebArch} Archive: Read a previous report about Judge Carole Clark's ideas on overhauling foster care.