Judge asks Texas to remove foster care kids from out-of-state facilities facing child abuse investigation

Photo above: At least 48 Texas children in the long-term care of the state are housed at facilities run by the groups under the senators’ investigation, said U.S. District Judge Janis Jack. Credit: iStock

By Sneha Dey, The Texas Tribune

A federal judge has asked Texas to cooperate with a new investigation into child abuse allegations at youth treatment facilities around the country, including 11 that are housing Texas children out of state.

Two U.S. senators launched an investigation last week into the largest organizations operating youth residential treatment facilities around the country — Vivant Behavioral Healthcare, Universal Health Services, Acadia Healthcare and Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health. The facilities have until Aug. 5 to provide documentation about operations and reports of ​​maltreatment and abuse in the past five years.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack, who is overseeing the 11-year-old lawsuit against Texas’ troubled foster care system, ordered the state to develop a plan within 60 days to remove the children residing at facilities run by the organizations under investigation.

Texas can send some of the foster care children under its care to out-of-state facilities, including treatment centers that offer mental health services and support for children with disabilities. The organizations under investigation have facilities in Texas, but none of their residential treatment centers are housing foster care children in the state.

Jack criticized the state for allowing children to be placed in out-of-state facilities run by organizations facing abuse allegations. At least 48 Texas children in the long-term care of the state are housed at facilities run by the groups under the senators’ investigation, but that number could be an undercount, Jack said.

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health is facing a class-action lawsuit over abuse allegations between 2003 and 2019, according to a National Disability Rights Network report. A New Mexico facility run by Acadia Healthcare shut down in 2019 due to allegations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and another Acadia facility in Montana shut down after reports surfaced of antihistamines being used there to restrain children.

Vivant Behavioral Healthcare opened in 2021 and continued the operations of Sequel, a group that shut down after facing reports that children were improperly secluded and physically restrained. Sequel’s co-founder Jay Ripley is Vivant’s CEO.

And Texas hospitals overseen by Universal Health Services have faced a litany of safety violations. Mayhill Hospital in Denton threatened to hold a teen in solitary confinement in 2017, and Millwood Hospital in Arlington detained an 11-year-old boy without consent, WFAA-TV reported.

Jack has previously criticized the state for failing to shut down unsafe child care placement facilities or stop the sexual abuse of children who are in the state’s care.

Jack also raised concerns Tuesday over inconsistencies in how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is legally classifying children in its care.

Children who have been in the foster care system for more than a year are required to be classified as being under permanent care of the state. But court-appointed monitors report that as of June 6, nearly 3,500 children are in temporary care status, even though they have been in the care of the state for 13 months or more. Court-appointed watchdogs found that at least 497 children had the incorrect legal status, Jack said.

The decadelong lawsuit to reform the state’s foster care system only protects children in permanent care of the state, which means that accurate record-keeping of foster care children’s legal status is critical in determining whether the state is in compliance with court orders, Paul Yetter, the attorney representing the children, said Tuesday.

A child’s legal status also dictates their rights: Only children in permanent care of the state, for example, are eligible for adoption.

Jack ordered the state to provide the correct legal status of each child in foster care within 30 days, which court-appointed watchdogs will then verify.