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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tells agencies to obey federal judge’s foster care edicts, sidestep big fines



TEXAS – Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered two state agencies to comply with a federal judge’s orders to improve Texas foster care — and quickly, to “avoid unnecessary fines.”

On Dec. 23, five days after U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack found the state in contempt of court, Abbott instructed Cecile Erwin Young, head of the Health and Human Services Commission, and Jaime Masters, chief of the Department of Family and Protective Services, to scurry and meet the judge’s new deadlines.

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In a letter, a copy of which The Dallas Morning News obtained late Tuesday, Abbott reminded Young and Masters that he’s the head of the state’s executive branch.

He’s also a co-defendant in a nearly 10-year-old class-action lawsuit. In it, Texas twice has been found in contempt of court. In late 2019, the state paid $150,000 in fines for not ensuring there were nighttime watches over kids in all group settings.

“I expect you to ensure that your agencies fully comply with the remedial orders at issue and submit certifications of compliance by the required dates in order to avoid unnecessary fines,” the Republican governor told the agency heads.

Abbott added, “We must do everything possible to protect children in the State’s permanent managing conservatorship from abuse and neglect.”

A federal judge on Friday found Texas in contempt of court – again — for continuing to expose thousands of children to “an unreasonable risk of serious harm” while in foster care. U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack threatened to levy fines of $75,000 a day against the state Health and Human Services Commission, starting Jan. 3.

Last month, Jack threatened to fine the commission $75,000 a day, starting last weekend, for dragging its feet on providing licensing inspectors an electronic readout of a home’s or facility’s five-year enforcement history.

Repeated incidents of child maltreatment in placements managed by certain private foster care providers have become perhaps the suit’s central focus, as Jack demands “heightened monitoring” of such state contractors.

In a Dec. 28 reply letter, Young told Abbott: “We created a new unit within Child Care Licensing to focus solely on implementing the heightened monitoring requirements. We are also implementing new policies and automation changes to meet additional aspects of the court orders.”

In her Dec. 24 response for the protective services department, which includes Child Protective Services, Masters said that “there’s much work to be done.”

Still, Masters wrote, “at a macro level we have streamlined and/or drastically changed processes, stood-up new divisions to ensure and monitor compliance, and brought in new leadership to assist with critical tasks.”

Both agency chiefs assured Abbott they would certify to the court that they had complied with Jack’s orders. On the immediate issue threatening monetary punishment, the tool for inspectors to use to review all maltreatment and corporal punishment incidents at a facility, Young promised “full compliance by the January 2, 2021 deadline.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered two state agencies to comply with a federal judge’s orders to make improvements to Texas foster care – and do so quickly enough to “avoid unnecessary fines.”

On Dec. 18, Jack found the state in contempt on 13 remedial orders, out of a total of 46 orders. The remaining 12 contempt findings involve failure to document children’s and providers’ histories, notify CPS and private-agency social workers when a new abuse investigation is launched, and bring down the caseloads of certain state workers critical to keeping foster children safe.

On those, there will be no fines if the state can show at a May 5 hearing in Corpus Christi that it has complied, said Jack, an appointee of then-President Bill Clinton.

Late Tuesday, plaintiffs’ attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry of the nonprofit group A Better Childhood said that “as far as we know,” threatened fines “have not been levied.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Paul Yetter of Houston said he was encouraged.

“We applaud the governor’s leadership and focus on this critical issue,” he said in a written statement. “Children deserve to be safe. Hopefully, the state will work with us toward meaningful foster care reform.”