New study finds court flaws in foster care system

It says foster care leaves many voiceless, adrift.
By Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje
Published: 12:00 a.m., Friday, January 21, 2011

A new study commissioned by the state found that thousands of children bounce around in the foster care system for years and never find a permanent home, partly because of flaws in the judicial system.
Conducted by Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based social justice group, the study examined data for all 21,000 children in long-term foster care in Texas in 2008. It revealed that children in state custody for more than three years experienced an average of 11 different placements, according to a news release issued by the group.
“Too often, these children are forgotten once they enter the state's permanent managing conservatorship,” said Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of Texas Appleseed. “Their placement review hearings are little more than status reports, for which some stakeholders are often ill-prepared. The sense of urgency to find these children safe, permanent homes is lost.”
In Texas, African American children are twice as likely to be removed from their homes and placed in foster care as Anglo children, but they are less likely to leave foster care before aging out at 18.
Marcy Greer, a partner at Fulbright & Jaworski LLP, which helped conduct the study, said children in foster care often have little or no opportunity to express their desires to the judge in the case review hearings.
“Texas has good statutes on the books and many well-intentioned people working in the child welfare system,” she said. “But our judicial system must do a better job at holding all stakeholders accountable for doing everything possible to find permanent placements for these children. It is unacceptable that there are so many children in (permanent state care) without an advocate. Many cannot even identify the attorney assigned to protect their interests.”
The current Texas statute requires that all children attend their placement review hearings, but few do, Lightsey said.
Foster parents also frequently fail to receive notice of the hearings, she said.
The study offers recommendations to help remedy the problem, including safeguards that ensure children are heard in court or in chambers during placement reviews and that the same judge conducts the reviews while they remain in state care.
Other recommendations include the appointment of a court advocate for every child and improvements in the docketing and notice of hearings.
The Supreme Court of Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth & Families, which commissioned the study, is spearheading an effort to develop a pilot program, triggered by the study, to see if changes in the scope, frequency and nature of case review hearings will help place more children in permanent homes, Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman said.
Given the current budget crisis, the study's recommendations won't cost additional state money, Appleseed said.