Why Texas spent millions on an emotional test case

The emotional strain and financial burden placed on Texas foster children as a result of their long-term reliance on state care has cost the state millions of dollars, according to health and advocacy groups who testified before the state’s Welfare Commission Thursday.

Health advocates called for new protections in the care of children who often are extremely vulnerable while being compared to adults in the foster care system. Legal representatives for foster children pushed for the possibility of winning back their rights as wards of the state. And the foster system’s director argued it is financially impossible to ease the very tight state-spending relationship and said the state’s own demographics mandate the continued focus on providing a full range of care to all children.

The commission is conducting an effort to overhaul the welfare system after the 2010 death of 6-year-old Joel Osteen, who was restrained and beaten by his caregiver’s boyfriend and by three staff members at Wylie’s Central Texas Family House. Osteen’s death was the catalyst for major reforms, including the implementation of a new state law that requires healthcare records for all foster children.

Friday’s testimony centered around three areas: the state of the child welfare system in the state; rules for medical care and mental health treatment; and recent changes to the state-care relationship between foster children and the state.

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Attorneys for foster children

Celia Cowdell, executive director of the Texas Children’s Commission, and Tim Dolan, director of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, came armed with cost estimates and demographic data that predicted dramatic changes in the state’s child welfare system if the expected change in population of children, their caretakers and their attorneys did not occur.

In 2014, there were nearly 72,000 children under state supervision and 14,460 in foster care — including the highest number of children in care in more than a decade. The following year, there were 50,280 in care and 9,235 in foster care.

Child Protective Services implemented a restructuring of the foster care system after the death of 12-year-old Jazmine Brown, a foster child who was the second child in two years to kill her foster mother and stepfather. Brown was under the care of Yolanda Spencer, the husband and partner of Robin Wolfgram.

The renewed focus on the potential for harm to children under the direct care of the state has garnered sharp criticism from supporters of Texas’ existing foster care system.

Dolan argued that without significant reform to Texas foster care, it will be “unfeasible” to release 1,200 children from state custody per year as has been reported. Costs will rise to $2.4 billion from $1.5 billion by 2021 as the system will be overwhelmed with children, he said.

The state data indicates that anywhere from 200 to 1,700 children could leave the system each year as a result of major reforms such as deinstitutionalization, he added.

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Cowell and Dolan made the case that state services for foster children have improved in recent years but acknowledged that progress has been slow. The state spent $100 million per year on psychological services for children under state care five years ago but spent just $50 million today.

In 2010, Foster Kids Health Crisis Program made 96,000 visits to hospitals treating psychotropic medication. Now, the number of visits is closer to 50,000, Cowdell said.

She added that mental health care needs among Texas foster children are higher than ever.

Osteen’s death prompted the Texas Legislature to enact the Child Welfare Reform Act. The act made tracking required health information about children and their caretakers mandatory, and requires any mental health treatment they receive to be photographed and recorded.

Lawyers for foster children

Advocates for foster children said their clients’ fragile mental health make them extremely vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Studies have shown that the mental health of foster children is often even lower than their physical health. For example, children with emotional and behavioral disorders are twice as likely to kill or injure themselves.

“It is our hope that these findings, which show that the mental health of many children living in foster care is fragile, can give us further evidence to help determine how best to address these challenges and how we can protect these children,” said Rusty Wilkerson, a lobbyist for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, after the testimony.

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