Texas Juvenile Justice, Child Welfare Respond to Hurricane Harvey

The rain and flooding following Hurricane Harvey continue to hammer a wide swath of Texas. At the center of the damage is Harris County, home to the Houston metro area and the 6.5 million people that live in it. Massive storms and flooding throw the normal functioning of government and administration into flux. The public and private agencies that provide child welfare and juvenile justice services are no exception. Youth Services Insider spoke with state officials to learn what was happening as the effects of the storm continue to wreak havoc.

Child Welfare

There are three groups of children that the Department of Family Preservation Services (DFPS) must coordinate for. There are kids in residential and congregate care facilities; those in foster homes or with relative caregivers; and those who are still in the custody of their parents. The DFPS licensing division has been tracking all state providers, according to DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins. As of this morning, 900 children have been evacuated from a total of 21 residential facilities. Those facilities are managed by private providers, who are required through licensing to have an emergency plan for such events. So all of those children remain in the custody of those providers. Said Crimmins, in an e-mail to YSI: “We’ve got 21 separate facility evacuations – they have been all over the place, but generally they’ve gone to either another facility in a safe area that has capacity, or some other alternate location. If their alternate location also floods, we will step in and help find placements.” Terri Jaggers – CEO of Hope’s Path, one of the 21 facilities forced to evacuate – said in a Facebook post that many of the children are being relocated to facilities in Dallas. She also noted the destruction of We Care, a residential program near Hope’s Path: “We Care Residential Treatment Center (across the street from Hope’s Path) is a total loss,” Jaggers posted. “All girls are being moved to Dallas. Please pray for Kathy Ross (Executive Director and Founder) and all of the girls in the home as Texas DFPS searches for new homes for the girls and We Care RTC determines their next steps.” Like Texas’ nonprofit and residential providers, individual foster parents are also required as licensed caregivers to have an evacuation plan ready. Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, shared over e-mail some intel she has learned on what’s happening with foster families: “Agencies were required to personally speak to all families to ensure they were doing so. Most family plans include relocating inland. We have many families that have come to the Austin area. Many go to stay with relatives, others are in motels and others are in shelters set up for folks. Those in motels will need to find assistance if they run out of money. It is much too early to know the damages to homes, vehicles and other property for the foster and kinship families.” The vast majority of children monitored by DFPS are at home with parents; some reunified after stays in foster care, others who remained at home while parents were receiving court-mandated or voluntary services. It goes without saying that in affected areas, those services will be interrupted for at least a while. [Child Protective Services] “is looking at all of the children and families in the affected areas who are involved with us,” Crimmins said. “We will get to these families, in order of priority, as soon as local officials allow.” After it deals with the initial emergency, DFPS will have child welfare’s most expensive challenge to contend with: housing. The flooding and storm damage is sure to leave thousands of families already identified as “in crisis” by the agency without a place to stay. Keeping those families together will cost money, and here is hoping that DFPS spends it. Family rights advocates will surely have an eye on what happens next, because kids ending up in foster care because of Harvey-inflicted housing insecurity would be an odious outcome here. The state might also face a significant cut in its foster home capacity in affected areas, because a lot of those parents will return to damaged or ruined homes. Said Clements: “When the flooding is over we will know more. I was able to communicate with administrators of the two largest child placing agencies in the state last night and both said they believe all of their families are safe so far but of course are concerned about if they will have homes to go back to that are livable.”

Juvenile Justice

The state agency, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, manages two aspects of the juvenile justice system. It oversees an array of secure facilities that counties can use to place offenders adjudicated for felonies, and it runs the parole division, which monitors Texas youths who have returned home from a placement. According to TJJD, none of the state’s facilities have been threatened by the storm. “Our residential facilities are all doing fine,” said TJJD spokeswoman Katherine Davis. “Houston has the worst flooding. Normally I’d say we want some closer, but right now, we’re lucky we don’t have any state facilities in the area.” Davis said a concerted effort is underway to reach all youth on parole in the storm- and flood-affected areas, and “make sure they have a safe place to stay.” The majority of Texas juvenile justice is handled at the county level; youth on probation, youth in detention and youth incarcerated in county-run facilities. Harris County (Houston) is the largest local system, and the one most affected so far by Harvey. The county was forced to evacuate its post-adjudication facility in the Seabrook area, which it did well before the storm hit, according to Kendall Mayfield, spokeswoman for the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. Those youth were moved to one of the county’s other juvenile facilities. Mayfield said that the department, which has about 1,100 employees, has an “initial plan” for managing detained and incarcerated youths, including backup service providers for food and other critical services. “We’re calling staff in to help monitor, we’re really trying to make sure all these kids are safe and dry,” Mayfield said. “We may need to release some kids early. We’re taking it day by day.” The county has several hundred youth in those secure facilities. For the several thousand on its probation caseload, Mayfield said the first phase is probation officer outreach to make contact and locate youth. The department has been using its social media avenues to communicate with staff and the public. A message on Facebook from today to staff: “Assistance is needed at all facilities. If your family and property are safe and you are able to safely make it to a facility, your help is greatly appreciated. (841/Education Sevices staff may not provide any supervision outside their scope of employment.) Please note: Stay off freeways and feeder roads. Many side roads are clear.” One aspect of the system that will be down for at least a week is the court itself. The building where the juvenile docket proceeds is flooded, and will not re-open for business until at least September 5.

This story originally appeared on The Chronicle of Social Change.

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