The Foster Care Ombudsman: What You & Youth in Foster Care Should Know!
The Foster Care Ombudsman’s office exists solely to help youth who are having problems with programs and services, whose rights may be being violated, who may be experiencing abuse or neglect in their placements or who have other issues or questions they need help with. In the last year, more youth than ever contacted the Foster Care Ombudsman’s office to get support and attention to their needs. This resulted in more reports on issues like abuse and neglect or an inability to access their identity documents. While it’s upsetting that these youth have to make these reports in the first place, the spike in reports is actually a positive story: youth are self-advocating, becoming more aware of the support that’s available and getting real attention to serious problems. Best of all, they have a neutral party to assist them.
Everyone who connects with young people in foster care should make sure that the youth know the Ombudsman’s office is there just to be on their side. Tell youth what the Foster Care Ombudsman is, and how to contact them. Print this flyer from the Foster Care Ombudsman and share it with youth.
Read on as we look into the Texas Foster Care Ombudsman (FCO) system – what it is, why it’s important and the details of the 2019 Report of the Ombudsman for Children and Youth in Foster Care.
What is the Foster Care Ombudsman?
The Foster Care Ombudsman is an independent, impartial public official that protects the rights of children in foster care by receiving, investigating and resolving complaints from these children. The FCO can also answer children’s questions and help them understand their rights. Its goals are:
- To help youth in foster care.
- To make sure youth get the services and care they need.
- To work with partners to fix individual and system problems.
- To advocate for youth and teach them to advocate for themselves.
In summary, the FCO offers children an independent outlet to voice their complaints and confusion with the foster care system. It investigates children’s complaints, answers their questions and advocates for improvements to the system on their behalf.
FCO staff follows up with youth within one business day from the date the complaint is made, and then every five business days going forward, until the case is closed. FCO staff keep record of all questions and complaints.
How can youth in foster care contact the Foster Care Ombudsman?
There are four ways to contact the FCO: through the phone, online, mail or fax.
- Call: 844-286-0769, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday – Friday (If you have a hearing or speech disability, call the toll-free Relay Texas service at 7-1-1 or 800-735-2989)
- Submit a question or complaint online at hhs.texas.gov/foster-care-help
Texas Health and Human Services Commission
Foster Care Ombudsman
P.O. Box 13247
Austin, TX 78711-3247
- Fax: 888-780-8099
Additionally, the FCO makes face-to-face visits with youth. There was an increase in these sorts of in-person visits in 2019, specifically with youth in residential treatment centers (RTCs). Some youth are more comfortable making reports of problems in the facility in a face-to-face setting, and an in-person visit to an RTC also gives the FCO the opportunity to explain their services to youth who may otherwise not be aware.
What are the steps of a Foster Care Ombudsman investigation?
When a complaint is made, the FCO either files it in the DFPS Statewide Intake system (if it is an abuse or neglect complaint) or makes their own investigation (for other types of complaints). In the case of abuse and neglect, once the FCO files it with Statewide Intake, both DFPS Child Care Investigations (CCI) and HHS Residential Child Care Licensing (RCCL) investigate the complaint. The FCO ensures complaints are fully addressed by following, and reviewing the results of, both investigations.
Following the investigation, a written response is provided to the youth if requested, which includes a description of the steps taken to investigate the complaint and a description of what the FCO found as a result of their investigation. A complaint is classified as either substantiated (confirming the allegations of the complaint) or not substantiated. If a complaint is substantiated, the youth is given a description of the actions taken in response to the investigation. If a complaint is not substantiated, the youth is given a description of additional steps they can take to have their complaint addressed (like speak to their CASA volunteer or to the judge assigned to their case).
The FCO is required to publish a yearly report. The 2019 iteration was published in December, and can be found in full here.
The report breaks down trends in the complaints the FCO received over the year, and recommendations for the following year.
What did this year’s report have to say?
The report found that there was an increase in both contacts and complaints in 2019 compared to 2018. Total contacts increased from 627 to 929 (48%) and complaints from 241 to 607 (152%). They attribute this increase to the hiring of three additional staff and the consequential ability to conduct more RTC visits. Additionally, there were 68 reports to Statewide Intake in 2019 – in 2018 there were 26. This increase was also attributed to the increased number of face-to-face visits the FCO was able to make in 2019.
Of the 607 resolved complaints from youth in 2019, 250 were substantiated, 344 were unsubstantiated, and 13 were unable to substantiate (there was not enough evidence). The five most common reasons for complaints by youth were related to:
- Their Rights in Foster Care (245 complaints)
- Primary Caseworker Responsibilities (174 complaints)
- Caseworker Not Responding to Phone Calls (42 complaints)
- Not All Facts Documented in IMPACT (41 complaints)
- Biographical/Personal Documentation (23 complaints)
Four out of the five top complaint reasons remain the same as they were in 2018 – “Biographical/Personal Documentation” is the sole newcomer. Its presence represents a troubling new trend of complaints from youth unable to obtain important documents like their birth certificates and Social Security cards. “Primary Caseworker Responsibilities” rose from fourth in 2018 to second in 2019. “Placement Issues” fell from the top five after Child Protective Services (CPS) leadership put policies in place to address the issue based on the FCO’s recommendations in the previous year’s report.
What does this year’s report recommend?
The FCO report recommends that:
- CPS staff continue their focused training for caseworkers on the rights of children and youth in foster care, and the importance of addressing related issues. “The Rights of Children and Youth in Foster Care” is the number one reason for complaints, and this training is vital in combating that trend.
- DFPS should continue its efforts to remind staff of the importance of ensuring youth have all their personal documents by the age mandated by CPS policy. There was a rise in complaints this year in regards to this issue.
- FCO posters should be reviewed with the youth when they are being placed. The FCO report also recommends DFPS and RCCL collaborate with the FCO by confirming the poster is being displayed in each facility they visit, and notifying the FCO of any placements failing to display them. Finally, the FCO recommends the posters being displayed are the original color posters and not black and white versions or photocopies. On RTC visits, the FCO found that many youth were unaware of the services offered, even if an FCO poster was hanging in their facility. Both the presence (some facilities did not have posters up or the youth did not know where they were hanging) and the quality of the poster (black and white often made the poster unreadable) were deemed responsible.
- The FCO recommends CPS updates their investigation report system (IMPACT) so each “narrative” is time stamped and the author is documented. The FCO has encountered problems deciphering CPS reports that have been edited and updated by multiple people at different times. They believe that by documenting who is making the changes, and at what time, they will be given a more coherent report of the investigation.
The FCO is an important resource for protecting the rights and ensuring the safety of youth in foster care. CASAs who are informed about the FCO and how to make a report can give the children they serve a powerful resource and potential safeguard against abuse.
- HHS Ombudsman Foster Care Help
- Governmental Ombudsman Standards
- FY 2019 Report of the Ombudsman for Children and Youth in Foster Care
- Foster Care Ombudsman Poster