Analysis: Texas’ foster care problems are clear. The response from state leaders isn’t

A Texas governor’s power to call a special legislative session includes setting its agenda. That list of issues tells legislators and the rest of us what the governor thinks is important enough to demand extra time from lawmakers.

The state’s troubled foster care system (and the well-documented dangers it poses for foster children in Texas) isn’t on the list, despite persistent problems. Persistent, in this case, means problems that have festered for so long there is no longer any excuse for ignorance of them. Those persistent problems have been getting regular and noisy attention from U.S. District Judge Janis Jack, who signaled her frustration and a change in tactics after cutting a hearing short on Tuesday.

"All I want us to do is get together and find solutions," Jack said. "I’m not interested in sanctions or putting feet to the fire anymore. I just want these children to be safe."

Lawmakers have a federal windfall of $16 billion in COVID-19 response funds to spend, some of which might be used to improve the lot for foster children, but money and new state laws aren’t the only problems here. They aren’t even the biggest ones.

The big failing is Texas’ neglect of foster children and of the safety net offered over the life of the foster system, which has been the subject of federal court fights for a decade.

Maybe it needs legislative attention right now, and maybe that can wait. But it does need attention from the state’s political leaders. It’s in federal court because the state hasn’t given the kids in the program their due, sometimes falling below the minimal level of care the state requires of parents.

Another way to say that: If a Texas parent treated children the way the state is sometimes doing, those children would be taken away for their safety.

The Texas Tribune’s Reese Oxner reported on the hearing: "For three hours, the judge, legal counsel for Texas foster children and state officials had been discussing new findings from court-appointed watchdogs. Details included unlicensed and dangerous placements — such as offices and hotels — where foster children spent the night and in which many were given the wrong or improper doses of medication, exposed to sexual abuse or engaged in self harm."

Gov. Greg Abbott has five things on the agenda for the special session starting Monday: drawing new political maps to reflect the latest census numbers, spending that COVID-19 relief money, requiring transgender student-athletes to play only on teams aligned with their gender assigned at birth, blocking school districts from requiring masks to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and protecting dogs from being chained without water and shelter.

Foster care isn’t on the governor’s menu.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has his own list of priorities. Because he doesn’t control the agenda, he’s working inside of it, proposing a spending wish list for that $16 billion in federal money that’s up for discussion. He wants property tax relief and money for the state’s unemployment insurance fund. That’ll be competitive, as others have proposed using the money for infrastructure, broadband expansion and rural hospitals, to name just a few.

Foster care isn’t on his list, either.

Jack ruled in 2015 that the state was violating the constitutional rights of foster children, exposing them to unreasonable risk of harm. It’s a lot of kids, too — more than 28,000 as of Sept. 7.

At this most recent hearing on the results of the latest report on problems with foster care in Texas, the judge told state officials she’s seen enough studies about what’s wrong. She wants a plan for a remedy and wants the governor’s explicit support for it.

State agency executives answer to the governor, and they’re working on this. The governor probably has someone monitoring the problem. It’s not a new one, and it’s still a mess. It bubbles to the surface every so often — mainly when Jack raises her judicial voice or when something terrible happens with a child.

She’s done it again, but as the Legislature starts its third special session of 2021, foster care doesn’t share the spotlight with the issues pushed by the state’s top political leaders — either for legislative or public attention.

They’re talking about session issues, as you would expect, but their agendas extend beyond what the Texas Legislature is doing, including, for example, their concerns about the increased number of migrants trying to cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Foster care in Texas doesn’t seem to be on those lists, either.

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