News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Beto O’Rourke blasts Greg Abbott for latest foster care abuse allegations

Beto O'Rourke.JPG
Evan L'Roy
The Texas Tribune
During a press conference Wednesday, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O'Rourke laid out several strategies for how he’d tackle longstanding problems within the state's foster care system if elected governor.

O’Rourke said the governor ignored longstanding problems that allegedly allowed foster kids, who had been victims of sex trafficking, to be abused by employees at a state-contracted facility charged with caring for children.

Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee for Texas governor, blasted Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott over the Texas foster care system and its decades long issues with caring for its children.

O’Rourke said the governor ignored longstanding problems that allegedly allowed foster kids who had been victims of sex trafficking to be further abused by employees at a state-contracted facility charged with caring for children.

“I wish this was an anomaly, but it’s not,” O’Rourke said. “This didn't have to have happened. There are changes we could have made.”

The Refuge, a shelter in Bastrop for children who are victims of sexual assault, had been contracted by the state for foster care children. But nine of its staff members are accused of subjecting seven children between the ages of 11 and 17 staying at the facility to sexual and physical abuse, neglectful supervision and medical neglect. One arrest has been made so far.

The state has learned of at least one case in which a former staff member sold nude photos of two children in the facility’s care, using the proceeds to purchase illegal drugs and alcohol that were then supplied to the children. Texas officials ordered the shelter to immediately close last week after the children had already been removed. Abbott said last week the Texas Rangers will investigate, arrest and pursue charges against any suspects related to the situation.

This development is only the latest in a long list of scandals plaguing Texas’ foster care system. Over the last several years, the system has seen numerous issues regarding its care of children with multiple bombshell reports from federal court monitors detailing abuse, neglect and deaths.

O’Rourke, who will face off against Abbott in the November general election, laid out several strategies for how he’d tackle the problem if elected governor during a press conference Wednesday.

Texas is missing out on millions of dollars in federal funding by being out of compliance with federal programs, O’Rourke said. He said he would ensure Texas falls in line with the Family First Prevention Services Act, a federal law that restructured federal child welfare funding. New guidelines aim to reduce entry in foster care, limit the use of group homes and other congregate care and fund substance abuse and mental health services.

If Texas were to come into compliance with the act, which passed in 2018, it would unlock millions of dollars for the foster care system, O’Rourke said. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is expecting a loss of $43 million in 2022 and 2023 because the state is not in compliance.

But getting into compliance is easier said than done.

DFPS officials have said it has not implemented all provisions of the federal program because Texas does not have enough qualified residential treatment programs to “serve the highest needs kids and draw down federal money.”

The state also does not have enough providers who offer the kinds of services required under the act, the department said, and the state says it’s unclear what services would qualify for funding. A statement on the DFPS website claims the department is awaiting federal guidance for how to proceed, along with feedback from Texas lawmakers.

Advocates and the federal judge overseeing a decade-old lawsuit over Texas’ foster care have called for the state to increase those services and use the funds drawn down to fund them.

Family preservation is paramount, O’Rourke added, and Texas should be investing to keep children with their immediate families or other family members before moving them to the foster care system. He said the state needs to invest in mental health resources for both children and their families to prevent unnecessarily removing them from loved ones and into a system found to be harmful.

O’Rourke also called for increased funding to Child Protective Services workers, to increase the number of case managers and its retention rate. The agency has been understaffed and experiencing high turnover rates for years, with many citing long hours for little pay.

“Typical Beto O’Rourke—all rhetoric, no real solutions,” Abbott’s campaign spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement after the press conference. “It’s sad that Beto O’Rourke is resorting to politicizing the well-being of Texas children to benefit his campaign and distract from his disastrous interview during SXSW this weekend, where he discussed his true passions of taking away Texans’ guns, opening our borders, and supporting President Biden.”

During the press conference, O’Rourke cast doubt on Texas’ approach to its foster care system in relying on private contractors to care for children in its care.

The Texas foster care system is privatized and relies on the private sector to provide placements for foster care children. The state manages the placements and removals of foster care children and is seeking to expand responsibilities for placement and therapeutic care to private partners.

“Why are we privatizing the care for the most vulnerable in this state? You’re bound to have problems,” O’Rourke said. “We outsource the state of Texas’ responsibility, but I can't think of a more important job.”