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Federal judge orders Texas health officials to pay daily fines over foster care neglect

A federal judge has mandated that Texas health and human services officials face daily fines of $100,000 for chronically neglecting investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect within the state’s troubled foster care system, according to a recent court order issued on Monday.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack found Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner Cecile E. Young in contempt of her previous court orders aimed at rectifying deficiencies in the state’s handling of complaints by children under its care.

This marks the third instance where the state has been held in contempt of court orders since the initiation of a lawsuit in 2011 concerning the conditions of foster care within the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).

The judge’s ruling was prompted by what she termed “continued recalcitrance” on the part of the HHS’s Provider Investigations unit to conduct thorough, accurate, and timely investigations into allegations of abuse, neglect, and exploitation involving children in DFPS custody, as stated in the 427-page decision.

The fines imposed on Texas will be rescinded upon demonstration of compliance with investigation standards. A hearing regarding this matter is scheduled for late June.

In response, the state has filed an appeal and a motion to stay the contempt order, contending its commitment to safeguarding children in its care and complying with court orders. However, Jack swiftly denied the motion, and the appeals process is set to proceed.

The contentious relationship between HHS, DFPS, and Judge Jack has persisted since her initial condemnation of the state’s foster care system in 2015, a ruling upheld by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three years later. Despite subsequent directives from Jack and court-appointed monitors overseeing DFPS since 2019, the state has faced ongoing criticism for its failure to fully adhere to remedial measures.

Attorneys representing foster children involved in the lawsuit lauded Jack’s ruling as a resolute message, emphasizing the urgent need to address systemic deficiencies jeopardizing children’s safety within the foster care system.

The legal battle underscores the plight of approximately 9,000 children in permanent state custody, many of whom endure complex mental and behavioral challenges exacerbated by inadequate supervision and responses to abuse allegations.

Concerns raised during recent hearings have spotlighted deficiencies in investigating complaints of sexual abuse among children with intellectual or developmental disabilities, reflecting broader systemic shortcomings in protecting vulnerable youth in state care.

Despite strides in staff training, persistent weaknesses persist in the state’s responses to abuse and neglect allegations, prompting calls for systemic reforms to ensure the safety and well-being of children under state guardianship.