AUSTIN (KXAN) – Hannah Reveile would wake up at two o’clock in the morning to drive two hours to Temple or Belton, dreading what was to come.
“It was scary driving in,” she remembers. “Then, you get to your shift, and you only had maybe the amount of time sitting in your car before you walk in to read about what happened on that previous shift.”
As a foster care caseworker, she had to show up for regular, mandatory overtime shifts watching children at locations such as hotels, rental houses, churches and state office buildings.
The state of Texas occasionally houses long-term foster children in its care in these types of unlicensed placements and calls them Children Without Placement (CWOP). The Department of Family and Protective Services has called CWOP a “last resort” but cited a shortage of beds at licensed foster providers — particularly for kids with complex medical or behavioral needs — as the reason for having to utilize it.
The state has faced criticism over the number and treatment of these children throughout the course of the long legal fight to fix Texas’ child welfare system — not only from the attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Texas foster care kids, but also from U.S. District Judge Janis Jack who has overseen the federal lawsuit for the last 12 years.
Reveile took the witness stand Monday to testify in the latest hearing in this lawsuit.
She told the courtroom she would often leave CWOP shifts tired, but “grateful for making it through conscious and alive.” Then, she would have to turn around and show up for her regular shift, with as many as 16 children in her caseload.
She testified, however, that leaving her job as a caseworker this summer was the “hardest thing” she had to do.
“They say don’t burn the candle at both ends. I was burning my end of the candle, but the system came in with a flamethrower,” she said, additionally calling the Texas system one “that’s broken and breaks people.”
Several years ago, Judge Jack appointed court monitors to oversee aspects of the child welfare system, as the lawsuit progressed.
A report filed in 2021 by the monitors showed 339 children experienced at least one night without a licensed, regulated placement from August 2020 to March 2021. The report stated, on average, 18 children were without placement on a given night during that same time frame. It noted a maximum of 52 children without placement on two specific nights in February and March 2021.
At the time, a spokesperson for DFPS said providers had been “profoundly affected by the pandemic and more recently by February’s winter storm,” on top of the state’s capacity crisis.
That year, legislation passed during the 87th legislative session and later became law, prohibiting the state from housing children in state office buildings.
By January 2023, the monitors reported improvements in the system, including more manageable caseloads and more accurate investigations.
However, in October 2023, the monitors filed a report showing 465 children experienced at least one night without placement from January 2023 through August 2023. On average, 62 kids were without placement on a given night during that time frame, with a maximum of 81 on a night in July.
This same report included specific incidents out of Bell County at single-family homes in Temple, Belton and Killeen — leased by DFPS and used to house children without placement. Pictures of these homes showed disorganized or dirty living conditions, as well as damaged walls and doors.
One, specific case described a 17-year-old girl who runs away from one of the CWOP locations on “an almost weekly basis, sometimes more than once a week, though she typically returns within 24 hours.” The report notes that there have been several confirmed and suspected but unconfirmed incidents of child sex trafficking, in her case.
According to the report, her experience is “not unique”: 12 of the 20 female foster children placed in a Bell County CWOP locations exhibited patterns of running away and raised concerns about sex trafficking. The report also states that while it focuses on cases out of Bell County, there were similar concerns raised about children who were housed in CWOP settings elsewhere.
Photos taken inside Bell County homes being used to house children without placement and featured in the court monitors most recent report (Credit: Monitors report filed October 2023) Photos taken inside Bell County homes being used to house children without placement and featured in the court monitors most recent report (Credit: Monitors report filed October 2023) Photos taken inside Bell County homes being used to house children without placement and featured in the court monitors most recent report (Credit: Monitors report filed October 2023)
‘Running on crisis level’
Two attorneys who represent children living in these unlicensed, unregulated placements took the witness stand on Tuesday and described unsafe conditions for their clients.
Julie Pennington characterized the locations as “not physically safe, not emotionally safe.”
Another attorney, Lindsey Dionne, used to work on contract for the state and represented it in administrative hearings against licensees. She said if these locations were treated like licensed placements, “They would be shut down immediately.”
She described seeing children “running the home” in some cases and hearing about sex trafficking rings being run out of others. She told the story of one of her clients who had “never been on a date, never had their first kiss” but fell victim to trafficking and assault.
She testified about other kids being flown to Miami, suggesting they had been trafficked. Meanwhile, she said usually has to meet with her clients in the parking lots of the hotels were they are staying.
“Although I’m pretty sure I could drive to Austin right now, walk into a CWOP location, take two kids and nobody would blink,” she said.
She said called the situation a “nightmare” that weighs on caseworkers and attorneys, alike.
Previous monitors reports have outlined the risk of these children without placement falling victim to abuse or physical danger, in addition to regular law enforcement responses to these locations and conflicts that often put caseworkers themselves at risk of harm.
Former DFPS supervisor Christie Carrington told the court caseworkers get assaulted “all the time.”
She described a harrowing phone call with two caseworkers during one of her last shifts before leaving the agency. The workers told her they were preparing to call police because of the conduct of a 9-year-old in their care.
“All I could think about was what a 9-year-old would think, with an officer walking in with a gun and a badge,” she said, adding that she didn’t blame the workers. “This is what exhausted people do.”
In her testimony in the ongoing hearing Tuesday, Carrington said CWOP has “hijacked” the state agency.
“It has taken over everything,” she said. “We’ve literally been running on crisis level.”
‘That is our goal’
Paul Yetter, the attorney representing the children in the ongoing federal lawsuit, questioned Erica Bañuelos, the associate commissioner for Child Protective Services at DFPS, on Monday.
When asked whether these locations – which were described by the judge as “shabby hotels and duplexes around” – were safe, Bañuelos seemed reluctant to answer before saying, “Sometimes.”
“I can’t say that it’s always not safe,” she said.
Bañuelos highlighted that her agency has expanded treatment foster care options for high-needs children and brought down the number of children without placement to 29, at last check.
“I would like to be at zero. That is our goal, but we are making progress,” she testified.
Yetter fired back that number of hours caseworkers spent watching children without placement, on top of their regular shifts, has not gone down and rather remains in the hundreds of thousands. He hammered Bañuelos about how these hours factor into caseload limits and went on to characterize CWOP shifts as an extra, full-time job for caseworkers that the state was “taking no account of it and claiming they’ve met the caseload guidelines.”
Bañuelos said the agency counts hours based on what the judge’s court order outlines concerning caseloads. However, the judge disagreed, saying the agency was “fiddling” with the numbers.
“I wrote the order. I know what it means,” the judge snapped.
She went on, “If you’ve got two caseworkers assigned to one child, they’ve both got to count on their caseload.”
At one point, Yetter asked why the state hasn’t hired dedicated workers to full these CWOP shifts. Bañuelos said they attempted to hire staff in the past but did not have enough applicants.
“We consider everything that we can to find licensed placements and kinship placements,” she said.
The hearing in Judge Jack’s courtroom is expected to last through the week. KXAN will be monitoring the proceedings.