Texas foster care system struggling

Some, but not enough, experience the challenges and joys of opening homes and hearts.

Monday, May 07, 2007Yolanda and Michael Gobert tell friends, business associates and fellow members of Little Zion Baptist Church about something they’ve been doing for four years, something they think others should consider: foster parenting.

It’s not an easy sell, and there have been no takers. But, Yolanda Gobert said, “we’re planting that seed.”

Michael and Yolanda Gobert, center, initially wanted to foster a baby but have discovered the joys of helping teenagers, and now they talk up the foster program every chance they get. Justin, 16, wants to be a politician; Amber, 15, has set her sights on nursing.

The Goberts, who have two teenage foster children, know that there aren’t nearly enough foster parents in Texas. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that some of the children the state has removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect are sleeping in state offices and sometimes hotels because there is nowhere else for them to go.

The Goberts have heard the reasons people say no. People are scared of what an abused or neglected child might be like. They’ve heard the horror stories of children dying in foster homes in Texas. They don’t like the idea of Child Protective Services workers poking around their homes.

And they’re turned off by all the regulations — including a batch added this year.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Gee, I don’t know if I want to go through that,’ ” said Roy Block of San Antonio, president of the Texas Foster Family Association.

Perhaps worst of all is the risk foster parents take when they open their hearts to a child whose legal guardian is the State of Texas.

“You always, constantly live with the fear that if you say something wrong or do something wrong with the children, they have the right to step in and take the children from you, and you have nothing to say or do about it,” Michael Gobert said.

Still, he urges people to do it.

“If you want to make an impact on society, on the world, I don’t see a better place than through foster care,” he said.

Running scared

In January, the state put in place a series of new rules, the first major overhaul of minimum standards in several years.

No smoking in foster homes. No firearms in certain foster homes (the Legislature is considering reversing that one). Must have a fence or a wall at least 4 feet high around an in-ground swimming pool area.

There are 474 rules for foster homes and the agencies that place children in the homes. They range from how often bed linens must be changed (at least once a week) to whether trampolines may be used as play equipment (no) to how a child may be disciplined.

Officials say the rules are for children’s safety. And state lawmakers are moving to increase oversight of the foster care system in the wake of the deaths of three children in foster homes in North Texas. The Senate passed a bill — expected to come up soon in a House hearing — that would require annual, unannounced inspections of foster homes.

“The state’s running a little scared,” Block said of the January rules. “I’m all for heading these things off so we never have a child injured. But we need homes; we need good homes; we need to not chase away our current homes by making things more cumbersome for them.”

The changes come at a time when there are about 20,000 children in foster care, an increase of about 45 percent since 2001. That’s due to general population growth as well as a recent infusion of money into improving abuse and neglect investigations, which has led to more children being removed from their homes.

The number of foster homes has increased 26 percent in that same period.

“I don’t think you raise treatment standards in the midst of a capacity crisis,” said Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which is an advocate for low- and middle-income Texans. “I think the rules that went into effect in January did just that.”

But state officials say there’s always a shortage of foster parents.

“This is not a new development,” said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS.

This part is new: In April, 92 children spent at least one night in a state office. That’s up from 32 in January, the first month the state started documenting the practice.

It has put rules into place governing the practice, including a requirement that at least two adults supervise them. Last week, CPS found a placement for a teenager who’d been staying in a state office in Round Rock for seven days.

On Tuesday, a state worker sent an e-mail with the subject line “Critical Help Needed for CPS Children.” She was trying to get the word out to civic and church groups that CPS needed community assistance feeding seven children staying in an office in Fort Worth.

“Finding placement for children who have been removed from their home due to abuse and/or neglect has become quite a challenge for our agency,” she wrote. “You may have heard that we have children sleeping in offices due to a delay or inability in locating placement for them. This can be very uncomfortable (for) the children we serve.”

Crimmins said it’s not just a lack of capacity that’s leading to children sleeping in offices. Frequently, he said, providers refuse to accept children with certain emotional or physical needs, even if the provider is licensed to take a child with those needs.

Over time, the number of foster children with special needs has increased, McCown said.

“Whether kids are more troubled or whether we do more about it is kind of irrelevant for the parent,” McCown said. “You’re still expecting them to do a more complex job.”

More help?

The Goberts decided to become foster parents nearly a decade ago. They wanted to be matched with a baby. But they changed their minds after learning at an informational meeting that they’d more likely be matched with an older child.

A few years later, they came around to the idea of older children. The day after they became certified, Amber moved in. Now 15, Amber is an aspiring nurse who spends a lot of time on MySpace.com. Later came Justin, 16, a 400-meter sprinter who’d like to be a politician.

Foster care is, by definition, a temporary arrangement. It lasts only until the children can be safely returned to their homes or adopted.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Texas foster parents were actively encouraged to adopt their foster children, but the change reduced the number of foster parents in the system. Once people adopted, they tended to stop being foster parents.

Another factor affecting the number of foster parents, McCown said, is the reimbursements foster parents receive: $20 to $80 a day, depending on the child’s needs. That’s not enough to cover the cost of raising a child, he said.

The Legislature is considering increasing those rates.

When asked what Texas is doing to recruit foster families, Crimmins pointed out that the state handles placements of just 20 percent of foster children. The rest are placed by private agencies overseen by the state. One private agency in Austin, the Casey Family Programs Austin Field Office, has several recruiting events scheduled in May, which is National Foster Care Month. They set up booths at community fairs. They go on radio shows.

Ann Stanley, director of the Casey field office, said some of the best recruiters are foster families such as the Goberts.

“They don’t sugarcoat it,” she said of experienced families. “They tell you, ‘This is when it’s hard. These are the joys.’

“We tell our foster parents this: ‘Your life becomes an open book. You are going to get questions that are really personal.’ ”

Under a microscope

When a CPS caseworker goes into a home of a potential foster family, he or she may ask about everything from the applicants’ work history to their sexual relationships.

Once approved, the foster home must get fire and health inspections. And CPS workers periodically inspect the homes.

Round Rock foster parent Kelvin Austin said he doesn’t mind the oversight.

“You get used to it,” he said.

But some say the inspections go too far.

Lori Hendley, a foster mother in McKinney, said her placement agency warned families that one home in its network was reported for having expired horseradish in the refrigerator, which could be a violation of standards for food quality and storage.

“You’re really under a microscope,” Hendley said. “You basically open up your home to Big Brother.”

Hendley said she’s seen the worst side of the CPS system. In 2004, she and her husband became foster parents for a baby boy they planned to adopt. But the CPS caseworker decided to place the boy with a friend of the child’s birth mother, she said.

“They pulled him out of our home, and they said, ‘That’s the last you’ll ever know about this child, ever,’ ” she said.

She said friends of hers who were considering being foster parents changed their minds after hearing about the Hendleys’ experience.

But the Hendleys didn’t give up. They now have a 3-year-old foster son. They are adopting him and expect the process to be complete this month.

“We hung in,” Hendley said as the boy chattered in the background, “and the reward is in my lap.”

cmaclaggan@statesman.com; 445-3548

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