Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Texas' foster care capacity keeps shrinking, as CPS loses its top child placement decision maker

Texas has a dearth of treatment beds available for the most disturbed of its foster children, and facilities keep closing or losing their state contracts. The situation complicates the state's response to a federal judge's scathing criticisms about shoddy care. Last spring, a 7-year-old read a book at a shelter in Dallas County run by Jonathan's Place, which also operates a residential treatment program for girls.

By Robert T. Garrett



Updated: 08 July 2016 11:00 AM

AUSTIN Just as Texas’ foster care capacity crunch keeps getting worse, Child Protective Services’ top decision maker on child placements is retiring.

Over a six-month period, officials have lost nearly 200 residential treatment center beds where they used to be able to place foster children with complex emotional and behavioral problems.

Experts said the closures or holds on adding children to the centers, plus the sudden retirement of CPS placement director Melanie Cleveland, will complicate the state’s efforts to respond to a federal judge’s scathing criticisms of Texas foster care.

Cleveland is in charge of managing placements and building more capacity, a nerve-wracking job she has held for less than a year.

Last week, Sinclair Children’s Center in Woodville announced it is voluntarily closing two residential operations in southeast Texas. As a result, CPS will have 53 fewer beds for abused and neglected children it has removed from their birth families.

Earlier in the year, the Department of Family and Protective Services took enforcement action against four other residential treatment centers, including two in the Panhandle, where a mass removal of seriously disturbed children drew criticism.

Responding to requests fromThe Dallas Morning News, the department acknowledged Thursday that in late January, it also refused to re-up the contracts of The Treehouse, a 25-bed facility in Conroe, and Avalon Center Inc., a 32-bed facility in the Central Texas town of Eddy, because of concerns about the quality of care.

For a time, the department suspended additional placements of children withCarter’s Kids Inc., a 60-bed treatment center in Richmond, citing deficiencies. Last week, though, it lifted the placement hold on the facility, saying conditions had improved. The center is run by former NFL player Tim Carter.

Last August, nearly 1,700 children were living in the centers. The already or soon-to-be shuttered centers would have been able to house about 12 percent of those children.

That comes on top of an existing bed shortage.Children again are sleeping in CPS offices because there is no available placement that’s suitable.

Residential treatment centers, especially, are not distributed well geographically to align with demand. For years, the department has noted there are many in and around Houston but relatively few in Dallas-Fort Worth.

The department is working on a formal study of the imbalances, which is due out this summer.

Officials acknowledge it’s increasingly hard to place children in their home community, especially in rural Texas. That’s partly because operators can refuse to take a child in CPS care.

“We don’t have any cushion,” said department spokesman Patrick Crimmins. “We don’t have any [centers] opening as these are closing.”

A bill being debated in Congress, the Families First Prevention Services Act, may be delaying foster care vendors from building new residential treatment centers, said Nancy Holman, who heads the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, which represents centers and child placing agencies. It would require accreditation and minimum staffing levels.

“That could be causing people to ... pause in expanding or opening new residentials,” she said. “Residentials are expensive to launch.”

The resignation of Cleveland, a 30-year “lifer” at CPS, comes at a very inauspicious time.

“Melanie has done a terrific job under very trying circumstances,” Crimmins said. “It's a really tough job, but she has been laser-focused on finding the right home for every child in foster care, regardless of the circumstances. In terms of her motivation for leaving, it was a strictly personal decision, nothing else.”

Cleveland’s last day will be July 27, she said in an email last week to her supervisor, CPS director of permanency Camille Gilliam.

“I will continue to pray for you all as you continue to fight the good fight,” she wrote.

In December, U.S. District Court Janis Graham Jack of Corpus Christi found, among other things, that Texas maintains an “inadequate placement array” in serving foster children. At any given time, the state has between 16,000 and 18,000 children in paid foster care. About 12,000 have been in state care for a year or more.

The lack of capacity is not new. Several years ago, officials and foster care vendors persuaded lawmakers to begin testing “foster care redesign,”which gives a super-contractor in a particular region responsibility for developing the right mix of institutional beds and family foster homes. But it’s had a troubled rollout and is operating only in Tarrant and several nearby counties.

Experts describe a fractious relationship between the department and the contractors on which it relies to house more than 90 percent of foster children. They say the Legislature has resisted increasing reimbursements to providers.

Meanwhile, private vendors can -- and often do -- refuse to accept “bouncers,” children who have been in state care for a long time and are troubled, traumatized and ill. The care for such children is  very costly.

On Feb. 1, the state removed 88 high-needs children -- many of them with autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities
from two treatment centers run by Children’s Hope in Lubbock and nearby Levelland. State officials  said they were shoddy, though a lawyer for the owner has disputed that assessment.

Initially, the department had no place to put the children. It spent $1.3 million housing them at shelters in San Antonio, 400 miles away, until treatment center beds or therapeutic foster homes could be found. Matthew Thigpen, a lawyer for Children’s Hope, said the transfers were unwarranted and greatly upset most of the children.

An investigation of the facilities is ongoing, Crimmins said.
http://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/headlines/20160708-texas-foster-care-capacity-keeps-shrinking-as-cps-loses-its-top-child-placement-decision-maker.ece