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Texas appeals $100K a day contempt fine in long running foster care litigation

The Earle Cabell Federal Building that houses the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas in downtown Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
The Earle Cabell Federal Building that houses the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas in downtown Dallas.

Lawyers for the state of Texas Tuesday appealed a $100,000 a day fine levied by a federal court.

Texas was found in contempt Monday by U.S. District Judge Janis Jack for violating two of the court's orders in its long running foster litigation.

Both court orders deal with the quality and expediency of state investigations of abuse and neglect claims.

Specifically, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) was fined over the performance of Provider Investigations — a unit charged with investigating abuse and neglect in facilities that house people with intellectual disabilities.

The state also asked for a stay in the case to avoid the accruing fines.

“[C]ontempt is unwarranted because at minimum defendants are in substantial compliance with the remedial orders in question, and that the Court improperly imposed criminal contempt without affording defendants the constitutionally required criminal process,” said attorneys for the state in a filing requesting the stay.

Jack denied the stay.

During a three-day contempt hearing late last year, the court heard a litany of investigative failures and bureaucratic backlogs in the department.

Bioscience-Medicine Texas held in contempt over child welfare failures Paul Flahive

The contempt fines would have concluded when the state certified it was back in “substantial compliance” with the orders. It also required the state to file a raft of data on all Provider Investigations cases dealing with the foster kids covered by the trial. The data would have validated the claims of the state that investigations were back in compliance.

“Rather than certify safe and timely investigations of reports of child abuse and neglect, the state seems determined to avoid responsibility,” said Paul Yetter, attorney for current and former foster youth. “This appeal sends a terrible message to Texas children that state leadership just doesn’t care about their safety.”

The order will now be referred to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. This is the first appeal to that court since the state hired outside attorneys Gibson Dunn and Crutchfield.

Allyson Ho, who is leading the state's defense in the federal litigation, is married to a justice on the 5th circuit.

Copyright 2024 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.