To help address foster care tragedies, better understand and listen to youth

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Earlier this month, two teenagers in foster care were struck by a vehicle after running away from Child Protective Services (CPS) offices in Houston, where they had been staying because of a lack of appropriate placement options. One, a 15-year-old girl, died from her injuries. The tragic fatality has heightened attention on Texas’ foster care capacity crisis, but it is important to recognize that the issues Texas must address are much broader.

Due to challenges with how information was collected and stored in previous years, CPS does not know exactly how many young people who should be in foster care have fled and not returned. The agency does know that 1,068 children ran from care in 2016 and that only 776 of them were located. The whereabouts of the remaining 292 runaways are unknown, but research suggests they are at very high risk of being victimized, particularly by sex traffickers.

What should we do about this?

We must recognize that housing children in CPS offices is unacceptable. Appropriate funding is needed to address this capacity crisis by supporting an array of quality foster care services that can meet demand for all children, including those with more challenging behaviors who require higher levels of care. Texas legislators have proposed significant funding increases for foster care, and the Texas Network of Youth Services applauds their leadership on this important issue.

Additionally, Texas must develop appropriate strategies to prevent and respond to runaways and potential runaways. The Legislature has insisted that CPS find the young people who have run away from care. CPS should absolutely make every effort to do that, but there is a larger problem, too: How will CPS keep them from running again, since this behavior is not unusual for children who do not want to be in care and who have experienced severe physical and emotional trauma?

This challenge requires a multi-faceted approach that includes increased training for providers and thoughtful discussion about how the system approaches care. One approach is to create “cultures of care” — climates that recognize past trauma youth have experienced and that work to prevent triggers that cause and escalate challenging behaviors such as running away.

For four years, our organization supported the development of cultures of care at a handful of residential treatment centers serving some of the most challenging youth across Texas. Evaluations results show the initiative was extremely successful; most programs substantially reduced their use of seclusion and restraint practices, which are often used to control behaviors but can create more trauma. This initiative can serve as a blueprint for preventing future foster care tragedies: by investing in evidence-based training and support services for providers to create climates that don’t prompt so many runaways.

Working collaboratively with youth and valuing their perspectives is another key part of the solution. Young people are telling us something when they run from care, and it is time to start listening. They often know what works best for them and research suggests that allowing youth to participate in decisions about their lives may help them heal. Perhaps youth should be able to exercise more choice regarding their placements, or even be given the choice to “opt out” of foster care placement during their later teen years and instead enter supportive living environments with fewer restrictions and strings attached.

These ideas may seem radical, but traditional foster care settings are just not working for everyone, and we risk future tragedies if we don’t adapt. In addition to increasing Texas’ foster care capacity, we must work to better understand and listen to youth in foster care so that we can keep them healthy, safe and on the right path.

Christine Gendron

Executive director, Texas Network of Youth Services