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Federal judge orders Texas to comply with Senate investigation into residential treatment facilities

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Texas has removed foster youth from at least one facility managed by companies being investigated by U.S. senators. 48 youth remain at 11 facilities, according to a federal judge.

A federal judge ordered Texas officials to cooperate with a U.S. Senate investigation into private residential treatment providers.

An investigation led by Patty Murray,D-Wash., and Ron Wyden ,D-Ore., became public last week when they sent a letter to four large providers of the services that cater to youth with special and mental health needs in juvenile justice and foster care.

The letterasked Vivant Behavioral Health, Universal Health Services, Acadia Healthcare and Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health for information and policies regarding restraint and seclusion practices, the number of restraint and seclusion incidents, abuse incidents, education plans and several other items.

“I am seriously concerned by report after report of abuse and neglect in residential care facilities responsible for caring for youth struggling with mental health and substance abuse disorders,” Wyden said in a press release.

Judge Janis Jack, who presides over the state’s 11-year old foster care litigation, ordered state officials at a Tuesday hearing to cooperate with Senate investigators targeting foster care treatment providers.

“I want to make sure that you all cooperate with the senatorial investigation, with facts, figures, complaints that you have for these facilities; this is important for our children, and I want to know what efforts you're taking to get children out of these facilities,” Jack said.

State officials present at the hearing said they were unaware of the new investigation. According to Jack, at least 48 children were in the care of these providers at 11 facilities in and out of the state.

One Devereux facility in League City was the focus of a federal court report last year. The report documented riots and child on child sexual activity inside the facility. Texas Department of Family and Protective Services confirmed it no longer contracted with the facility. But the facility remained open, with self reported incidents into Feb. 2022.

The issues with residential treatment centers are not new and have been brought up several times in Texas’ foster care legal battles.

The General Accountability Office found thousands of examples of abuse (some that included deaths) inside of residential treatment facilities in a 2007 report looking at 17 years of data.

But Jack said it wasn’t clear if there were more Texas foster children in these facilities. The focus of the hearing was on the state’s faulty data collection.

Court monitors — tasked with ensuring the state complies with court-ordered reforms — questioned the Department’s ability to keep accurate records of children.

A report filed in the case from court monitors last week in federal court showed the state miscategorized 497 children.

When the state removes a child from a home, the child is placed into Temporary Managing Conservatorship (TMC).

That can last a maximum of a year. Then, if still in state care, they are supposed to transition into Permanent Managing Conservatorship. The pandemic saw the number of emergency six-month extensions spike to 3,000 youth, often multiple times.

“You understand that you all have filed briefs with me saying only one extension is ever allowed under the Family Code?” Jack asked.

The difference in status dictates the resources and rights of the children — as well as PMC kids – are protected by the federal lawsuit.

Intentional or not, the state has kept the number of kids affected by the federal lawsuit against the state’s foster care system artificially low. In some cases, the youth’s case should have been legally terminated because data showed the state didn’t file for extensions in time.

But it wasn’t clear if the data collected matched what actually happened— as one DFPS executive pointed out.

Jack said the entirety of the state’s data was suspect.

“This is absurd that we cannot rely on the statistics provided by the state,” she said.
Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Paul Flahive is the accountability reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.