Failing Texas' foster children

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by ANDY PIERROTTI, SANDRA BARRY / KVUE News and Photojournalist DEREK RASOR

kvue.com

Posted on November 18, 2013 at 11:32 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 19 at 11:33 AM

AUSTIN -- A KVUE Defenders investigation has uncovered a dramatic increase in background check failures by private agencies that Texas hires to place children in foster homes. This includes numerous background checks not performed or updated in foster homes where two children died this year in the Austin area.

In August Rockdale police charged Sherill Small with murder. The former foster mother is accused of smashing two-year-old Alex Hill’s head to the ground in frustration.

An investigation by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services revealed Texas Mentor, the agency which placed Alex with Small, did not perform three background checks on people living in the foster home. This includes an adult male, another frequent visitor and a babysitter.

Alex's father Joshua Hill was working to regain custody of his daughter before she died. He says the lack of background checks only adds to his grief.

"Honestly it kind of opened my head up to what else could my daughter could have gone through?" said Hill.

A KVUE investigation uncovered Alex's case is just one example of a problem that's rising dramatically.

In 2008 the DFPS cited child placing companies 31 times for not performing background checks on people living and frequently visiting the homes where state foster children live. By 2012 that number jumped to 393.

"Who was supposed to go in that household and check to make sure background checks are being done? Obviously it's supposed to be the agency. Where's the state?" contends Bobby Taylor, Hill’s attorney.

In yet another example of the system breaking down, a different foster child died in Cedar Park while under the supervision of the child placing agency Lutheran Social Services. The man accused of killing the child, Jacob Salas, lived at the home but neither the state or LSS were aware.

Background checks weren't performed, even though the child's father alerted the state that Salas was dangerous and was living at the Cedar Park home.

"There may be some rule changes. I think we need to have more unannounced visits to homes," said John Specia, the commissioner for the DFPS.

The KVUE Defenders also discovered that the state continues to pay child placing companies despite numerous violations. Since 2008 the state cited Texas Mentor 44 times for not conducting or updating background checks. In 2002 the state paid the company more than $9 million.

Specia says they consider terminating contracts with agencies that do not follow the rules.

"I terminated a number of contracts last year. So when we have violations, when they're not living up to standards, I'm going to terminate the contracts," he said.

While the state terminated three contracts last year, all of them were smaller agencies and responsible for 40 children combined. Larger agencies with more violations like Texas Mentor, which is responsible for about 275 children, continue to get state contracts.

After Alex's death the state stopped placing foster children in Texas Mentor homes. Hill says it's an action that came too late for his two-year-old daughter.

“I know my daughter is not the only child who has died in foster care, and unfortunately I can probably say she won't be the last," said Hill.

By e-mail, Texas Mentor says the background check deficiencies the KVUE Defenders uncovered represent less than two percent of the children it has in its care. The agency also says it has made significant progress in addressing internal issues to prevent more deaths.

Within the past month the state created an action plan and is holding forums through the state with stakeholders. DFPS does not have a specific time line of when it will implement needed changes.

Click below for an interactive look at Texas foster care statistics.

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