The top official for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) has announced that he is stepping-down effective May 31, 2016.
Judge John Specia Jr. announced on Friday that he intends to retire after 30 years of public service. Specia became DFPS Commissioner on December 1, 2012.
Commissioner Specia is a former family law judge with a distinguished legal history, especially in Child Protective Services (CPS) cases. He has extensive expertise in the foster care system, and has broad civil law experience.
“It has been an honor every day working with the dedicated public servants at DFPS,” Commissioner Specia said in a prepared statement. “I never cease to be amazed at the way our team fights for our kids and vulnerable adults, no matter the circumstances. I know they will continue to put at-risk Texans first as the HHS system transforms itself in the coming months and years.”
“Judge Specia is a dynamic leader and has proven himself a true public servant for three decades,” Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Chris Traylor said in a statement obtained by Breitbart Texas. “His career will always be defined by his commitment to children, preventing child abuse and making Texas a safer place.”
The former judge was a founding member and jurist in residence for the Texas Supreme Court Children’s Commission. He also established the Bexar County Children’s Court which provides specialized services for children. He created the Family Drug Treatment Court in that county and it became a model for the Lone Star State. He was vice-chair of the Supreme Court’s Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth, and Families, and chair of the Supreme Court Task Force on Foster Care.
Commissioner Specia served as District Judge of the 225th District Court in San Antonio for 18 years (1988-2006) and was the administrative judge for Bexar County district courts for four of those years. He also served as Master of the 289th Family and Juvenile District Court (1985-1988). Commissioner Specia was one of the state’s first child welfare attorneys, serving as a regional attorney for the former Texas Department of Human Services (1980-1985), and he was a family law attorney in private practice before becoming a district judge.
After retiring from the bench in 2006, Specia served as partner in a law firm where he practiced mediation and arbitration. He also served as a visiting judge. Judge Specia has been an adjunct professor at St. Mary’s School of Law since 1995, teaching trial advocacy, advanced trial advocacy, and international arbitration.
Specia was honored with the 2012 Infant Mental Health Advocacy Award and received the 2011 Lone Star Award for his work in substance abuse prevention and treatment. He was a recipient of the Dale Wood Award for outstanding protection of children by the judiciary and was named “Judge of the Year” by Texas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).
Specia has a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Texas and a doctor of jurisprudence from St. Mary’s University of Law.
The Department of Family and Protective Services is the agency in Texas that works to protect both children and the elderly from abuse, neglect and exploitation. Its most commonly known subdivision is CPS. It also has an Adult Protection Services Division (APS). The agency also licenses facilities and works to protect the health and safety of children in day care and foster care.
The agency is not, and has not been, without its critics. Breitbart Texas has reported about the abuses, problems, and overreach in the agency, particularly among CPS caseworkers and in foster care.
In 2014, the department approved new agency rules aimed at preventing deaths of children in CPS foster care, as reported by Breitbart Texas. The Council’s action came after the deaths of two year old Alexandria Hill and eleven month old Orien Hamilton. Both died of blunt-force head injuries suffered in foster and kinship homes. The homes were approved by child-placing agencies (CPAs) which were licensed by TDFPS. The Department licenses the 220 foster child-placing agencies that recruit, investigate, and train potential foster and kinship parents and monitor the placements once they become caregivers.
In March 2015, Breitbart Texas reported that Texas Governor Greg Abbott directed the DFPS to implement comprehensive reforms after three children died under the supervision of the department. The reforms were aimed at protecting future and current children under the agency’s care. Nine children died under DFPS’ watch during 2014.
In September, a CPS worker was found guilty of official oppression, as reported by Breitbart Texas. The CPS worker, Rebekah Ross Thonginh, is one of three individuals who were charged in connection with a CPS investigation of a case involving a special needs teenager who was murdered in 2012. Thonginh, Natalie Ausbie Reynolds, and Laura Ard were arrested in September of 2013 and were charged with official oppression and tampering with evidence. Critics say that more caseworkers should be investigated for their constitutional overreaches with parents, custodians, and guardians.
In 2014, a Texas judge ordered the removal of a YouTube video, which after highlighted in an article by Breitbart Texas, went viral with hundreds of thousands of views and shares. As reported by Breitbart Texas, Judge Keith Dean ordered the removal of a YouTube video produced by a 13-year-old boy that exposed the sexual and physical abuse that he and his brother and family say they endured while in CPS foster care. The video, obtained from someone outside of the family, also discusses the 377-day nightmare suffered by him and his six siblings after they were ripped from their family and placed in four different foster care facilities out of their home county. The mother told Breitbart Texas at the time “they are trying to rake this abuse under the rug.”
A Children’s Advocacy group brought a class action lawsuit against CPS in December of 2014, as reported by Breitbart Texas. The class-action lawsuit was filed by a New York advocacy group called Children’s Rights. About 12,000 children were included in the class-action suit. These children were in long-term care in Texas.
The group successfully sought and received an order from U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack to have the State of Texas enact reforms for its children’s services. The judge ruled that the long-term foster care system is improperly run and is a place “where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm,” as reported by the Dallas Morning News in December 2015. The judge noted that the DFPS and Judge Specia have “the best intentions” but the system is underfunded. She called the long-term foster care system in the state “broken.”
Lana Shadwick is a writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She has served as a prosecutor and associate judge. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2