State redoubles effort to find foster homes as numbers surge for kids sleeping in offices

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A week after a Houston foster teen was fatally struck by a van after leaving a state office where she had slept overnight, the embattled Child Protective Services released a new plan to address foster care “capacity” issues, including looking for help in neighboring states.

The plan comes as the number of unplaced children who slept more than two nights in a row in a state office, motel or shelter rose sharply in March to 65, the highest number in the past seven months, the agency reported Friday.

“The numbers are disappointing, as Gov. Abbott has given clear direction to us that it is unacceptable for foster children to live in CPS offices,” Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins said in a statement released Friday.

The death of the 15-year-old girl on April 2 marked the first time a child has died while sleeping in a CPS office because of a lack of available foster care placements.

The state’s plan to address the problems is driven in part by a federal judge’s order that mandated sweeping reforms in 2015, including prohibiting foster children from being placed in group homes without 24-hour, awake supervision. Last December, the judge said the state “incorrectly interpreted” her directive for a year by applying the rules to new foster children and allowing those already in group housing to remain there.

New information released Friday by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services showed that children have stayed hundreds of times since Sept. 1 in government buildings, motels, shelters and placements outside of foster homes because caseworkers couldn’t find placements.

In response, the state has hired a “capacity building specialist” and will continue working to nurture partnerships with faith-based organizations to provide emergency housing, according to the report released Friday.

Talks have also started with out-of-state residential treatment providers in Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico who could build facilities in Texas.

Agency officials reported an increasing number of foster children who have been subjected to sex trafficking and require “unique treatment and supervision to ensure their safety and healing.”

One partner organization is building a 50-acre ranch near Austin to provide rescued girls with comprehensive treatment services, according to the report said.

The mix of foster children has changed in recent years, with more high-needs minors who are harder to place, officials said last week after the girl’s death.

An agency assessment released in January said the state urgently needs more foster homes for children with serious medical, emotional, psychological and behavioral challenges in or near each child’s home county.

In Harris County, more than 400 children lacked foster care placement in the past two years – about 10 percent of the total children served – though the area had more than enough residential treatment beds.

“We are continuing to work closely with providers, practically on a daily basis, to come up with additional strategies to open up placements for high-need children,” Crimmins said. “Our work with faith-based providers is also a key component to the drive to build capacity. These partnerships are crucial, because CPS cannot increase capacity on its own.”

DeJuana Jernigan, director of child welfare and residential treatment services at Depelchin Children’s Center in Houston, said her agency continues to develop ways to recruit and train foster families.

The organization’s case load includes about 950 youngsters; about 30 percent of them have high needs.

Foster parents must receive special training to understand minors who have endured tough circumstances.

“There are a lot of children who aren’t able to find placement quickly,” she said. “It’s going to take someone who is invested in developing a relationship based on trust with a child, someone who is very patient and someone who understands that this child is responding to the trauma. They are not disobedient just for the sake of being disobedient.”

Children land in CPS care because they have been abused or neglected, and foster parents must be able to help those children heal and shift their expectations as caregivers, Jernigan said.

To sustain and increase its capacity, Depelchin buoys its foster parents with resources such as a day-and-a half per month of respite from caregiving.

The CPS child killed this month was Daphne Jackson, a Houston teen who had been included on local and national missing child alerts after disappearing last August. Houston police said she repeatedly ran away after she was located in October.

Daphne and another girl left a CPS facility on Northpoint Drive in northwest Harris County where they were bunking overnight, and eventually met up with other teens.

Around 3 a.m., the group was walking in an area without sidewalks in the 111200 block of Veterans Memorial Drive when Jackson strayed into the road.

The driver of a van traveling southbound saw the teens but slammed into Daphne as she edged into the road, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

She died in a nearby parking lot. The other teen girl, whose name has not been released, sustained an arm injury. She was treated at a nearby hospital and returned to CPS care. The van driver was questioned and released without charges.

At the time, both girls were considered “children without placement” and had ended up supervised by caseworkers in a state office.

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