Crystal Bentley, age twenty-three, spent sixteen years in the Texas foster care system. Her testimony in a federal civil trial being held in Corpus Christi casts even more shadows on the embattled Texas Children’s Protective Services agency (CPS). The agency, formally known as the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (TDFPS), is the subject of a civil rights class-action lawsuit.
Bentley testified earlier this week that she was shuffled from home to home from the time she was two years of age, until she “aged-out” at the age of eighteen. She claimed she was repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted while she was under the watch of CPS case workers who frequently didn’t show up for monthly visits. Bentley claims that the assaults came from adults who were supposed to be caring for her, the children of foster parents and other foster children, and even her own relatives according to an article in the Houston Chronicle. When case workers did show up for monthly visits, her abuse would go unreported because they failed to speak with her privately.
The class-action lawsuit was filed by a New York advocacy group called Children’s Rights. About 12,000 children are included in the class-action suit. These children are in long-term care in Texas.
The group seeks to have U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack order the State of Texas to enact reforms for its children’s services.
The group has been successful in fifteen of its nineteen previously filed lawsuits.
Another former foster child, Jordan Arce, age 19, told his story about how he was placed in a facility with children who exhibited behavioral or emotional problems. Despite multiple placements and even a group home, Arce was able to maintain his straight-A record in schools. “I would lock myself in the closet, just so I could study, read, talk to myself,” he said. “After I left, I struggled a lot with just connecting to other people.”
Frequent turnover of caseworkers and management problems are to be blamed according to a series of articles in a San Antonio Express-News investigation.
Representatives for TDFPS tell a different side to the story. In testimony this week, Jane Burstain, the current director for TDFPS, cited statistics that show the department has made vast improvements in caring for foster children. She said Texas has made more placements in homes of relatives, and had more adoptions, fewer children in long-term care, and better training and retention of workers. “Texas, vis-à-vis other states in the nation, is in the norm with turnover, not significantly better or worse,” Burstain said in an article written by Stoeltje for the Express-News. “All child welfare agencies struggle with turnover.”
Burstain says that large caseloads are not necessarily tied to high worker turnover, or to bad outcomes for children. She said the plaintiffs were confusing “correlation with causation.”
The attorney for the Plaintiff Children’s Rights organization disagreed. “You’ve heard over and over again about high caseloads leading to high turnover and bad outcomes, including in countless documents the (DFPS) has put out about it,” said Paul Yetter, a Houston attorney hired to help represent the organization.
Burstain suggested in several emails that “reasonable minds” could differ as to whether caregivers were at fault in some cases involving deaths in foster care during 2013.
“I didn’t say [the findings] needed to be changed, I said they needed to be reviewed,” Burstain said.
Judge Jack, who is hearing the case without a jury, asked, “Why review them if it’s not to change them?”
The class action lawsuit is focused on children in long-term care in Texas who have been harmed by a system that has overloaded caseworkers and other problems.
A psychologist who testified on behalf of the state, addressed questions about an 8-year old boy who had been sexually assaulted by two 16-year-old boys while in a foster home. He said the boy had substantially improved while in the state’s care. This witness received tough questioning by the state’s lawyer, and the judge.
A ruling from the judge is not expected for several weeks.
Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She has served the state as a family court judge and a CPS lawyer. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2