BASTROP, Texas - More than 100 children have died in Texas since 2020 while in the state’s child welfare system, including two who died from COVID-19 complications, according to a Texas Department of Family and Protective Services report provided to lawmakers Friday.
Forty-four children died in 2020 and 38 in 2021 while they were in the state’s care, according to a DFPS report obtained by The Texas Tribune. The numbers are on par with those reported in previous years. Twenty-two children have died in the first three months of this year, or about half the number of deaths in each of the previous five years.
The state cared for 45,870 children in 2021. The children who died last year represent about 0.08% of kids under the state’s care. Children in foster care are 42% more likely to die than children in the general population, according to a study by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania referenced in the DFPS report.
The report was produced in response to questions from a House Human Services Committee hearing last month. The hearing came after allegations of abuse at a state-licensed foster care facility in Bastrop renewed lawmakers’ interest in the state’s troubled child welfare system.
Most of the deaths listed in the report were attributed to "preexisting medical conditions" or abuse suffered before the children entered the system. The report did not go into detail as to what those conditions included. The state’s child welfare system often serves children with specialized medical and therapeutic needs.
Since 2020, six children died by drowning. Six children died by suicide. One child died this year from a gunshot wound during a pursuit by law enforcement. Three died from physical violence after running away from Child Protective Services.
The report said two children with preexisting conditions have died from COVID-19 complications while in the state’s care; one in 2020 and one this year.
Last week, a federal judge overseeing an 11-year-old lawsuit against Texas on behalf of the children under the state’s care grilled child welfare leaders on what the policy was to vaccinate its children against the virus.
As of last week, around 35% of eligible youth in the state's long-term foster care system were vaccinated against COVID-19 with at least one dose, according to Liz Kromrei, director of services at Texas Child Protective Services. U.S. District Judge Janis Jack asked for the percentage of fully vaccinated youth, but DFPS did not have that information on hand. Leaders said there was no formal policy within the department, but they encouraged children to agree to get vaccinations.
Jack told DFPS leaders they should not allow very young children to decline the vaccine and pointed to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent nonbinding legal opinion calling certain gender-affirming medical treatments "child abuse."
"According to the attorney general of Texas, they do not have the ability to give medical consent until 18," Jack said.
The federal lawsuit seeking to fix Texas’ long-term foster care system has been ongoing since 2011. Jack ruled in 2015 that the state was violating foster children’s constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable risk of harm, saying that children "often age out of care more damaged than when they entered."
"It’s the safety of these children that’s at stake here," Jack said during a federal court hearing last year detailing the deaths within the long-term foster care system. "That’s the most important thing we have … and I expect Texas to live up to its duties to keep these children safe."
As part of Jack’s orders to reform the system, the court put into place two monitors to act as watchdogs over the system. Their duties include poring over documents, interviews and other materials to identify deficiencies in the system.
The report provided to lawmakers summarized the monitors’ fees since they began in 2019. Over the last three years, the monitors have charged the state nearly $29.5 million.
The two monitors, Deborah Fowler and Kevin Ryan, lead a team to probe the system. Fowler and Ryan managed 38 other staff members as of early January.
The court-approved rates are $85 an hour for associates, $120 an hour for junior employees and up to $425 an hour for each of the two monitors. There are rates in between those amounts for other staff members, depending on their respective levels of education and experience, the report said.
State Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, who chairs the Human Services committee and is a former foster parent, has been publicly critical of the federal lawsuit and its monitors over the years.
Frank has previously said although the monitors have caught foster care providers who have caused harm to children within the system, the lawsuit is causing more harm than good and thinks the amount of money the monitors are making discourages them from making real progress that would make their job defunct.
Jack and attorneys representing foster children in the lawsuit have fiercely defended the court monitors and said many instances of neglect and abuse would have gone unnoticed if for their work. That includes the recent allegations of sex abuse at The Refuge, a state-licensed foster care facility in Bastrop.
The judge has expressed a need to solve some of the many issues by the monitors sooner rather than later, encouraging the formation of an expert panel to provide systemwide recommendations.
"I don't want to spend another 20 years," she said during the last court hearing. "I don't think I have another 20 years to spend overseeing this case."
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Correction, April 5, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a Texas House hearing on the state's child welfare system last month was held by the House Health Services Committee. The hearing was held by the House Human Services Committee.
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