'This is not excusable': Federal judge grills Texas leaders over failures of state's foster care

A federal judge pressed the Texas Department of Family Protective Services to move faster with the recommendations to make foster children safer in the state at a court hearing on Friday.

Judge Janis Jack had several pointed questions for the department and its newly appointed commissioner Stephanie Muth and criticized the department for not making children aware of their rights and not taking proper action for reports of abuse.

"These children are going from psychiatric treatment centers to out in places where there is no treatment of any kind, they are committing suicide on our watch, running away, all kinds of not favorable outcomes," she said.

In her first remarks as commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Muth told Judge Jack, "One of my priorities stepping into this role is to reduce children without placement."

Pulling statistics from a report by federal court monitors Jack asked why 21% of children did not have investigations opened into abuse accusations within 24 hours.

"We continue to educate and look at whys, why initiation was missed," Marta Talbert with DFPS responded.

READ MORE: New Texas foster care report shows both improvements and continued deficiencies

Judge Jack also expressed concerns that some parents feel they are forced to surrender parental rights in order to get mental health care for their children.

"Can you convey this to the governor? They could have stayed in families and gotten the same for physical and mental abilities," said Jack.

An attorney for the state responded that they will discuss the issue with their client.

The judge was also concerned that court monitors found fewer than half of foster children were aware of the hotline they could call to report abuse and neglect.

"At a hearing in February I will entertain contempt on this issue. This is not excusable," Judge Jack said. 

She also questioned if the department would reinvestigate two children shot to death under DFPS care.

"I'd be happy to have a conversation with staff," a DFPS administrator responded.

Judge Jack pointed out that the state has a surplus this year and asked administrators if they were trying to get some of that money.

Leaders told the judge they were.

"I understand these children have complicated histories, come into your care with great needs, I don't want them going out of your care with even greater needs and that is what has been happening," Judge Jack said in closing.