Austin American-Statesman. January 27, 2023.
Editorial: Much work left to fix Texas’ foster care failures
A new federal report on Texas’ failing foster care system makes clear the state has a long way to go before Texans can be confident the agency is adequately protecting more than 10,000 children in its care.
Texas continues to expose children without permanent foster home placements to “risk of serious harm in unregulated sites” without sufficiently trained caregivers, monitors appointed by a federal judge found. Wait times for those reporting abuse of children in the foster care system grew longer, and some children in foster homes still are not being adequately protected from trafficking, among other long-running systemic deficiencies.
Texas has long failed these most vulnerable children who deserve so much better from the system that is supposed to protect them. We urge the 88th Texas Legislature to do everything it can to address and correct systemic flaws in the state’s foster care program.
Report finds some improvements in state foster care
The federal report does contain welcome news: The court monitors reported progress by foster care system managers, including better caseload management and training for caseworkers, and fewer children languishing in foster care without these advocates. Investigations of abuse, neglect and exploitation of children in foster homes are becoming more thorough, the report also found.
In 2021, Texas lawmakers appropriated $90 million for improvements, including additional foster care facilities to accommodate children removed from their homes and expanded mental health services for children with the greatest emotional needs. That money is helping to rectify an appalling record of failure by the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services, but it’s only a start. Armed with a $33 billion state budget surplus, the legislature should invest in foster care facility upgrades and improved technology to help workers better track children and monitor their progress. The state also needs to pay more to extended family members who assume responsibility for these unfortunate kids. Studies show children removed from their parents’ homes do better with extended family members than strangers, but relatives who take in children in Texas are paid barely half the amount that non-related caregivers receive.
It also makes sense for the legislature to invest in the mental health of struggling parents. Parental drug and alcohol abuse figures in more than two-thirds of cases involving children removed from their homes in Texas. State programs that provide psychological and substance abuse counseling, as well as parent skill-building services, are eligible for federal matching funds under the Family First Act signed into law by President Donald Trump. Texas should take advantage of these funds because it costs less to help these adults early-on than to pay for their incarceration and/or foster care for their children later.
Texas foster care advocates this week endorsed these measures in the wake of the latest court monitoring report, which stems from a class action lawsuit filed against Texas 11 years ago on behalf of nine former foster care children who claimed the state Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) violated their constitutional rights. In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Janice Jack ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the agency to clean up its foster care system. Instead, DFPS officials wasted several years fighting Jack’s order, and the state spent more than $10 million on legal challenges instead of admitting the problems and ordering DFPS officials to fix them.
Lawmakers must act urgently to correct ongoing flaws
During that time, Jack’s monitors found that DFPS routinely shipped some children in foster care to unlicensed out-of-state homes, sometimes putting them in dangerous situations. A lack of adequate facilities for children in foster care forced some to sleep in state offices or motels, and the agency lost track of some kids. The DFPS says no children in its care have slept in state offices since early 2022.
In June, 2022, an exasperated Judge Jack threatened to levy huge fines against the state while castigating DFPS leaders as “un-transparent and uncooperative and completely ignorant of what’s going on in their own department.”
We hope the improvements detailed in the latest report on the state foster care system signal that the DFPS is finally getting Jack’s message with the dire urgency it requires. State lawmakers meeting in Austin for the 88th Legislature should build on these improvements and correct systemic failures.
When children suffer from neglect and mistreatment, whether by their parents or in the foster care system, they are more likely to end up entangled in the criminal justice system, and that hurts all of us. The state’s most vulnerable children deserve better. State lawmakers should act on their behalf this legislative session and do everything in their power to protect them.
Dallas Morning News. January 27, 2023.
Editorial: Dan Patrick’s tradition busting could turn sour for Texas GOP
Sticking it to the Dems is wrecking GOP loyalty and cohesion.
In expected hyper-partisan form, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has decided to do away with Democratic Senate committee chairs, leaving just one, the longtime moderate Houston Democrat John Whitmire, a lion of the Legislature whose removal would have been too much tradition busting even for Patrick.
It’s a sad but predictable play from Patrick, a man for whom party means more than tradition and who sees power in partisanship, even if it upends the way our state has been governed. The worry these days for people in positions like Patrick’s is that someone will manage to get to their right in a primary. (Patrick spent part of his week in a weird news release battle with ultraconservative state Rep. Steve Toth to prove something, it was hard to tell what, about who is more conservative.)
Thankfully, not every Republican in power in this state is burying tradition in the name of power, a practice that has a way of turning around on you.
Last week, House Speaker Dade Phelan refused to give into the pressure to solely appoint Republican chairs. After being reelected as speaker, Phelan told House members to not “confuse” the Texas Legislature with Washington, D.C.
As a result, his own party went after him in political ads and news releases so breathless they read as parody.
James Wesolek, a spokesman for the Texas GOP, told us that the party spent $15,000 on ads against Phelan for refusing to ban Democratic chairs. Wesolek said the ads were purchased for a two-week stint in Phelan’s district. Such is party loyalty and cohesion in the state GOP these days.
Phelan has not announced any appointments yet, but he has already signaled to voters that he wants to keep partisanship and extremism at bay this session. We wish him luck.
Patrick’s actions thus far, first banning media from the chamber floor and now eliminating Democratic chairs, exacerbate the Senate’s extreme tilt and weaken the trust between the Legislature and voters in a time when bipartisanship is desperately needed.
Texas has serious business to get done to keep us moving forward as a state. Chances are the Senate will be hog-tied with business it shouldn’t be worrying about. That’s bad for Texans. But it could be even worse for Republicans.
If the tide ever turns on conservatives in this state, they won’t have tradition to stand on now.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. January 28, 2023.
Editorial: Texas GOP fighting over Democrats chairing House panels. Here’s what it’s really about
Republicans are fighting over how the House is run. A rump group is making demands of their speaker and taking their demands to the public airwaves.
Is this Washington, where Speaker Kevin McCarthy has a tenuous hold on his chamber and his party? No, this is Austin, where a few lawmakers and activists are trying to make an issue of Speaker Dade Phelan’s still-unannounced choices to chair legislative committees.
As with demands upon McCarthy over procedure, few people who don’t make politics a career or hobby know or care about it. But it’s useful for understanding ongoing internal divisions in the GOP.
The concern is whether Phelan names Democrats to lead committees. Republicans control the chamber, 86-64. Every speaker for decades has made bipartisan appointments, usually ensuring that the most important panels, the ones that handle the biggest bills and control the flow of major legislation, are in the hands of allies.
There’s not an issue in the Senate, where Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed just one Democrat to lead a committee: John Whitmire of Houston, the most-tenured senator who has long led the Criminal Justice Committee.
GOP activists want Washington-style leadership, in which the slightest majority wields total control. They point to a handful of measures that they blame Democratic committee leaders for blocking. Among the targets is Rep. Nicole Collier, the Fort Worth Democrat who led the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee two years ago and allegedly stopped a desired bill heightening penalties for damaging public monuments.
There are other decided differences with D.C.’s drama, too: In this case, Phelan holds all the cards. The Beaumont-area Republican was elected speaker, 143-3, on the legislative session’s first day. Two of the holdouts were Arlington Rep. Tony Tinderholt, who offered himself as a candidate, and Fort Worth Rep. Nate Schatzline, who damaged their ability to deliver for their constituents with their quixotic quest.
Phelan’s opponents have no leverage over him; they are trying to build it by taking their fight to the party’s grassroots. It’s also worth noting that if Phelan doesn’t appoint Democrats, few if any minorities will lead committees, which is unacceptable in a majority-minority state.
It’s odd that the state party apparatus itself is involved. Party chairman Matt Rinaldi has made this a priority, giving it much more attention than tax cuts, border security, school choice or other top GOP concerns.
And that illustrates an important truth: These fights are not about policy and ideology. The Republican rebels fashion themselves the most “conservative” members of the party. Some may be — many are particularly strong supporters of the “Make America Great Again” agenda or conservative Christian priorities.
But this is about power. Specifically, it’s the latest in a long-running war over keeping the “establishment” in check. Yesterday’s solid, respected conservative — say, Phelan — is today’s “RINO” squish.
As a result, though, the state GOP itself is becoming isolated and irrelevant. There couldn’t have been a clearer example than last year’s campaign, when Gov. Greg Abbott crushed three Republican primary opponents and cruised to re-election, all while prominently choosing not to appear at the state party’s convention.
The traditional purpose of parties is to raise money and help candidates get elected. But hobbyists have won control of the Texas GOP and made their obsessions its priorities. If you dig politics, there’s nothing like a good row over the process and purity tests. Meanwhile, most Republican voters shrug and ignore the drama.
There’s a consequence, though. Gradually, Republican leaders have to slide to the rebels’ sides, or at least throw them a bone or two. Consider two years ago, when conservatives enacted some of the toughest abortion restrictions of any state. It might have seemed like an easy victory to let them have, but once Roe v. Wade was overturned, it became reality.
Republicans can govern with conservative priorities and still be bipartisan, steering a center-right path that maintains the state’s business-friendly climate and economic success.
Once upon a time, those were the Texas GOP’s focus, too.
Houston Chronicle. January 27, 2023.
Editorial: HISD drama is over. But is a state takeover still imminent?
Maybe Americans love democracy for the drama. Voters like to mix it up sometimes by, say, sending a reality TV show star to the White House. The best story lines, though, are local and one of the most gripping soap operas was the 2018-19 season of “HISD Elementary.”
There was the episode when five mischievous board members allegedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act with a “walking quorum” in order to oust and replace the interim superintendent with no warning, only to reverse the decision with whiplash-inducing speed later.
Another must-see was the video of an potty-mouthed Houston ISD board board retreat during which a mediator had to place himself in the path of a shouting trustee confronting another. Their social media tit-for-tats were just as spicy.
Allegations of embezzlement involving a multimillion dollar lawn mowing and landscaping contract brought even more sizzle. Former Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones later pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. A top Houston ISD official and a vendor were indicted.
If all that weren’t enough, 21 of HISD’s 280 schools received failing grades from the state in 2019, and Wheatley High School failed for the seventh consecutive year, triggering a potential state takeover of the board, which was paused in a real cliffhanger by last-minute court appeals.
The next two seasons of the show just couldn’t compare even with the pandemic shutdowns and parent masking battles.
We can jest about this troubling history because thankfully, voters elected more boring, er -- responsible, trustees. Their meetings no longer resemble a cafeteria food fight and the board voted unanimously to hire a dynamic superintendent, who seems to have some regard for accountability. Some of the campuses that were repeatedly failing, including Wheatley, have shown improvement. So when the Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling lifting an injunction on Jan. 13, basically giving the go-ahead on the state takeover once the court’s decision takes effect, some who would have accepted such a move in 2019 — including members of this editorial board — aren’t so sure anymore.
The hard truth is that HISD still faces student achievement gaps in its schools and a looming budget crisis when the COVID relief money runs out. Superintendent Millard House II started ringing the alarm bells almost as soon as he began in June 2021. Come 2025, the district is projected to experience a budget shortfall of $217 million. Public school funding is largely based on the number of students attending classes. HISD enrollment dropped 12 percent in the past five years. Meanwhile, the costs of keeping school buildings running and paying staff go up.
In April, our assessment was that HISD had earned extra credit for cleaning up its act but we remain deeply concerned with whether the district is using COVID relief funds to make the most of this grace period.
The tactic of delaying the takeover through court appeals gave voters the chance to do their jobs. While the days of gross malfeasance, embezzlement and soap opera drama appear to be over, the district may soon be making the kinds of decisions that will bring turmoil once more. Will they layoff teachers, consolidate campuses or backtrack on recent gains on teacher pay and counseling for students? If the last board meeting in which trustees voted to reinstate the principal of Yates High School following a public outcry is any indication, the superintendent may struggle to get the backing he needs to guide the district through a difficult future.
A state-appointed board, however, would face a messy and divisive transition. Experts find that state takeovers yield mixed results and as much as Gov. Greg Abbott loves to limit local control in big blue cities, this is one headache he may not want to take on.
Of course, what the governor wants, or we want, or even what Texas education commissioner Mike Morath wants, may not matter. While some statutory grounds for state intervention, such as trustees violating laws, allow for a discretionary takeover, one trigger — Wheatley’s consistent low performance — may make intervention mandatory under the law. Morath could either close the school or appoint a board of managers to take over the whole district, and Wheatley parents who don’t like his choice could petition for the other one.
Either way, the rigidity of the law doesn’t appear to leave room to consider HISD’s progress on troubled campuses, the good behavior of trustees, or even whether the problem its designed to address no longer exists. That seems to be a problem with the law, which it’s high time for lawmakers reevaluate.
Meantime, we urge Morath to advocate for resources from the Legislature as it decides what to do with a record surplus and to use whatever assets he can share, along with the renewed threat of a takeover, to push HISD to make the proactive choices needed to avoid the problems that brought the district to the brink of takeover.
As the 2019 season of “HISD Elementary” came to a close, the editorial board published a three-part series on solutions that ended with a call to action for Houstonians to participate. We celebrate those who did get involved, from the voters who chose new trustees to citizens who underwent special training to join a temporary board in the event of a takeover. The need for public participation and feedback to local trustees is still urgent. We no longer see the wisdom in a disruptive state takeover — as long as the progress continues — and we hope there’s still some way to avoid that result.
It’s true that Houston ISD has 99 problems to contend with — including poverty, food insecurity, and third-grade reading scores — but we’re glad to report, at least, that unruly board members are no longer one.
San Antonio Express-News. January 27, 2023.
Editorial: Texas must end prolonged solitary confinements
On Jan. 10 — the first day of Texas’ legislative session, at least 72 Texas prisoners began a hunger strike against solitary confinement, which can sometimes last a decade or longer. By Thursday, more than two weeks later, nine prisoners were still not eating. Also on Thursday, death row inmates filed a federal lawsuit against Texas over its use of solitary confinement.
We recognize these are not sympathetic people. These are prisoners who have been convicted of terrible offenses, and, in Texas, they are put in solitary if they are escape risks, have committed violent assaults or serious offenses while incarcerated, or are confirmed members of dangerous prison gangs. But how we treat them is a reflection of our values and humanity — and it matters if we are serious about rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.
It’s inhumane to employ solitary confinement in a way that experts say is torture.
Prisons use different words to describe what amounts to locking up inmates and throwing away the key: disciplinary segregation, punitive segregation, administrative segregation, involuntary protective custody and segregated housing units.
Texas, which has some of the harshest solitary confinement practices in the country, calls it “security detention population.” International law and experts describe it as torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading; a violation of human rights. We agree.
The striking Texas prisoners want solitary confinement changed from “status-based” to “behavioral-based,” which would be triggered for serious rules violations, not simply gang membership. They also want firm timelines for people to get out of solitary and new pathways for re-entry into the general prison population.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has downplayed the scope of extended solitary confinement use.
“Security detention accounts for less than 3% of the inmate population within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It is used judiciously,” agency spokesperson Amanda Hernandez told our Editorial Board.
But this affects thousands of prisoners. In November, 3,141 Texas prisoners were held in solitary confinement; more than 500 were there for at least a decade, according to the Texas Tribune.
Former South African leader Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison fighting apartheid, enduring hunger, forced labor, abuse and solitary confinement, said, “I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life.”
“There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks,” he said. “Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.”
The first of 122 rules of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for Prisoners begins: “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.”
That should be our guide.
For prisoners in American prisons, solitary confinement means living 23 to 24 hours a day in a 6-by-9-foot to 8-by-10-foot cell.
Experts have said the process in Texas prisons for renouncing gangs and entering a pathway back into the general population is flawed and often unattainable.
The U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for Prisoners, known as the the Nelson Mandela Rules, defines prolonged solitary confinement — isolation for 23 hours a day for 15 days — as torture.
“There is overwhelming evidence that solitary confinement causes indelible harm and the practice should be prohibited,” concludes a 2020 article by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, tweeted on the second day of the protest that “tons of research shows that (people) deteriorate mentally in solitary confinement, and can become suicidal. Imagine letting someone out on the street after years in that setting with no human contact (because most of these people ARE getting out of prison someday).”
This speaks to the concerns about failing to rehabilitate people. Just what are we accomplishing if we resort to practices that damage people before they are released to the public?
In prison, where gangs and violence are the norm, ensuring safety and security is a challenge and a concern, but that does not justify resorting to torture. Texas should study New York’s new HALT (Humane Alternatives to Long Term solitary confinement) Act, which bars isolation for more than 15 consecutive days.
Hernandez told us the TDCJ “has made great strides in reducing the security detention population in recent years” and noted a 65% decrease in “security detention population” since 2007, when there were 9,186 inmates in solitary.
But if the practice is inhumane, then it shouldn’t be used.