BEEVILLE—South Texas Children’s Home Ministries is among the foster care providers affected by a federal judge’s order requiring group homes to provide 24-hour-awake supervision of children under the state’s permanent managing conservatorship.
The order means either house parents in homes with more than six children must remain awake at night to supervise those wards of the state, or the agency operating the homes must hire additional qualified staff to provide the supervision.
U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack issued the order Nov. 7, holding the state in contempt for placing long-term foster children with group residential organizations that did not provide “continuous 24-hour awake-night supervision.” She fined the state $50,000 per day from Nov. 8 to Nov. 20 for any continued failure to comply, increasing the daily fine to $100,000 thereafter.
Impact on Texas Baptist agencies
When the judge issued the order, STCH Ministries had 10 children in homes for whom the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has permanent managing conservatorship, said Kyle Luke, the agency’s vice president for development and communication.
While STCH Ministries falls under the broad umbrella of group residential organizations, its children’s home program is licensed as a basic care facility, not a residential treatment center or juvenile psychiatric facility.
A Buckner International spokesperson said Buckner Foster Care and Adoption does not currently have any children who qualify under the court-mandated supervision stipulation.
Similarly, Todd Roberson, president and chief executive officer of Children at Heart Ministries said: “Currently, the judge’s order does not impact the children we are serving. The 24-hour supervision requirement is for permanent managing conservatorship children placed by DFPS. We do not currently have any PMC children in care.”
Making the necessary adjustments
To comply with the order at STCH Ministries, children affected by it had to be placed in two homes that were segregated by gender, with two sets of house parents rotating night-hour shifts, Luke explained.
“It’s disruptive for the children when they are separated from their house parents and siblings,” Luke said. “It’s also putting a label on them, saying, ‘You need 24-hour-a-day supervision.’”
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House parents have been affected by the court order, because it means they are unable to participate in activities with their children on the day following a night shift, he added.
Furthermore, a judge can change a child’s legal status from temporary managing conservatorship to permanent managing conservatorship 12 to 18 months after the child enters foster care. So, that could mean a child whose status is revised would have to be moved from one home to another, causing further disruption, Luke noted.
Latest step in a long legal battle
The Nov. 7 court order marked the latest development in a legal battle that began with a lawsuit a children’s rights group filed March 9, 2011, on behalf of nine children, challenging deficiencies in Texas’ foster care system.
In a 260-page ruling in December 2015, Judge Jack declared the state’s foster care system “broken,” saying children “uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.” She identified the lack of 24-hour-awake-night supervision in group homes as “the most egregious problem” in a system filled with problems.
However, most of the cases cited in the ruling concerned residential treatment centers and other facilities for children and youth with issues that demand high levels of constant attention—not basic-level care facilities with selective placement criteria, such as STCH Ministries.
“We are thoughtful and prayerful about accepting any child who is placed here,” said Eron Green, president and chief executive officer of STCH Ministries. “We want to serve children in need, but that means we also are very protective of the kids we currently have in our care.”
Masters, monitors and mandates
The judge ordered the appointment of special masters to oversee changes in the foster care system.
Following appeals, the Fifth Circuit Court ruled on July 30, rejecting a couple of changes mandated by Jack’s 2015 ruling but upholding the awake-night supervision requirement. In September, monitors learned the court-mandated 24-hour-awake requirement was not being implemented consistently.
So, during two weeks in October, monitors made surprise visits to 15 general residential operations. They found 14 without any awake-night supervision, and the one that did have 24-hour supervision only provided it in one cottage.
Consequently, Jack conducted a Nov. 5 hearing on the matter, followed by her Nov. 7 order, again mandating 24-hour supervision and fining the state for noncompliance.
Safeguards in place at STCH Ministries
Greg Huskey, vice president of homes for children at STCH Ministries, noted both safety and “felt safety” are high priorities for children in the agency’s care.
“Our staff develop lines of communication with our children and are trained in trust-based relational interventions principles to enhance communication efforts ensuring safety,” Huskey said.
Staff receive annual training for caregivers in regard to recognizing and reporting sexual abuse, he said. Each child has a STCH Ministries caseworker who checks on the child in the cottage and the caseworker’s office regarding safety and security, along with STCH Ministries counselors, he added.
After the court mandate went into effect this summer, STCH Ministries tried unsuccessfully to find definitive answers to questions about what 24-hour supervision entailed, Green noted. State departmental personnel were unable to say with certainty, for example, whether room alarms or video monitoring would satisfy the requirement.
“We had frozen placements for at least three months,” waiting for clarification, he said.
Consequently, the number in the ministry’s children’s home residential program had dropped from an average of 60 last year to 40 currently, he noted.
Trying to minimize disruptions
STCH Ministries sets eight children per home as its maximum goal, he said, adding that the agency counts children younger than age 5 as two children in setting that number.
Some agencies are lobbying for additional state money to help them offset the cost of hiring additional staff. However, while STCH Ministries accepts children placed by the state, it does not accept any state or federal funds.
“We are 100 percent privately funded,” Green said.
STCH Ministries will care for the permanent managing conservatorship children already in its care, but “it’s not something we are interested in doing long-term” under the currently imposed order, he said.
“We definitely feel like the model of care we want to provide is one of normalcy”—a home environment with as few disruptions as possible, Green said.
However, the court order “turned our campus upside-down,” and “normalcy was compromised,” he added.
Some children who had been with the same house parents for up to five years had to be relocated once the order was implemented, he noted.
Green said he believed the court-ordered mandates were “well-intentioned,” but some of them have caused disruptions for children in the state’s child welfare system.