5th Circuit Court of Appeals Rules on Federal CPS Lawsuit

On Oct. 18, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals released an opinion in the state’s appeal of the federal court ruling that found the Texas child welfare system violates the right of children in foster care to “personal security and reasonable safe living conditions.”  The Court of Appeals upheld many but not all of the remedies ordered in the District Court’s ruling.

In the District Court, Judge Janis Jack found that the “policy and practices related to caseloads, monitoring and oversight, placement array, and group foster homes” were insufficient to keep the children in the state’s care reasonably safe.

The court upheld the order that DFPS must reduce caseloads, but changed the mechanism by which that should happen. The District Court had required a caseload cap of 17 cases per caseworker. However, the Court of Appeals requires DFPS to improve caseload data and then set reasonable caseload standards based on that data. The Fifth Circuit Court noted that without a hiring target, DFPS was effectively “hiring blind.” The Court of Appeals also invalidated 10 provisions ordered by the district court that they felt would exacerbate caseload issues by adding to the paperwork and other administrative burdens of caseworkers.

The Fifth Circuit also upheld the District Court order that the state improve monitoring and oversight of foster care placements by the Residential Child Care Licensing division at DFPS. To support this decision, the court cited the high error rates in these licensing investigations, the failure to track child-on-child abuse and inadequate enforcement practices. While the Court of Appeals kept in place the majority of provisions ordered by the district court related to this issue, it did invalidate 12 other provisions, such as the caseload cap for investigations workers and a 24-hour hotline for children in foster care to report abuse.

The Court of Appeals did not, however, uphold the order that DFPS improve placement options for children – stating that the availability of foster homes was outside the state’s control. The court opinion reasoned that out-of-region placement or placement in a setting that was not least-restrictive did not rise to the level of “constitutionally cognizable harm” to children and that the state was not indifferent to the harm that could result from sub-optimal placements. The court of appeals noted that DFPS was actively working to address placement array issues with the roll-out of Foster Care Redesign (Community Based Care).

Finally, the Court of Appeals did not agree with the District Court’s determination that foster group homes (FGHs) were inherently dangerous to children in their care. The judges noted that FGHs are a “critical placement option for large sibling groups DFPS is attempting to keep together.” All provisions ordered by the District Court related to placement array and foster groups homes were invalidated in the Fifth Circuit ruling.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated Judge Jack’s injunction and remands the decision back to the district court to change the provisions of the injunction in keeping with the decisions of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Office of the Attorney General has not yet announced if it will appeal the Oct. 18 decision.

For more information on this ruling, see the following: