Strayhorn: More dying in foster care

Date: 2006-06-24

Strayhorn: More dying in foster care

But CPS says deaths from abuse, neglect actually dropped in '05

June 24, 2006
ROBERT T. GARRETT
The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – An alarming number of Texas children die in foster care, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn said Friday.
 
Foster children were four times more likely to die than children in the state's general population in 2003, Mrs. Strayhorn said.

The state's Child Protective Services division said that's hardly surprising. Children removed from abusive and neglectful homes often are very ill and have far more health problems than other children, said CPS spokesman Darrell Azar.

Mrs. Strayhorn said the number of deaths of foster children increased faster than the foster care population from 2003 to 2005, but Mr. Azar said confirmed deaths of foster children from abuse and neglect actually declined last year.

The comptroller released statistics on deaths, rapes, pregnancies and medication mishaps – what she called "every bit of information that we have" on foster children.

"The people of Texas can handle the truth," said Mrs. Strayhorn, who is running for governor as an independent.

She renewed demands for confidential medical data on foster children. Without it, she said, she cannot complete an investigation she launched in 2003 after The Dallas Morning News found problems with the state's financial oversight of "residential treatment centers" – homes for emotionally disturbed foster children.

Mrs. Strayhorn said the administration of political rival Gov. Rick Perry has "stonewalled" her office's attempt to expose the foster care system's shortcomings.

A spokeswoman for Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins, a Perry appointee, said state and federal privacy laws forbid release of the Medicaid data sought by Mrs. Strayhorn.

The commission "offered to provide the comptroller's office with aggregate data, but the law clearly forbids the release of client-specific health information," said spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman.

She said the commission "continues to request more information from the comptroller's office about how the requested data would be used."

Seeking political gain?

Perry campaign spokesman Robert Black accused Mrs. Strayhorn of "exploiting child tragedies" for political advantage.

Mr. Black noted that the governor signed into law a sweeping overhaul of CPS and its sister agency, Adult Protective Services, last year. The bill "addressed the concerns outlined by experts and even Carole Strayhorn's own 2004 report" on foster children, Mr. Black said.

The statistics the comptroller highlighted were for years when CPS caseworkers had among the nation's highest caseloads, investigations often were shoddy and the agency was still reeling from the loss of about 1,000 clerks and support staff in a 1995 budget cut.

Last year's legislation adopted some of Mrs. Strayhorn's proposals for privatizing the recruitment of foster care homes and placement of children for adoption, though those changes haven't yet occurred.

The comptroller, however, said Mr. Perry and lawmakers disregarded many of her proposals for improving foster children's medical treatments and reducing their use of mental-health drugs. She said that CPS is still in crisis and that the governor should have heeded her recommendation to create a crisis management team.

"With every breath of air in my lungs, I will continue to be the voice for these forgotten, neglected, abused and dead children," Mrs. Strayhorn said.

She said her staff has uncovered that:

• More children are dying. In fiscal 2003, 30 foster children died in homes or institutions regulated by the state. The next year, the number was 38. And last year, it was 48. "Many children are in more abusive situations now than they were before the state intervened," Mrs. Strayhorn said.

• Medicaid billings indicate 63 youngsters were treated for rape and 142 gave birth in fiscal 2004. There also were about 100 foster children treated that year for "poisoning from medications," she said.

Mr. Azar of CPS said he couldn't comment on the rapes, pregnancies or poisonings.

"We don't know where she got that information," he said. "I know we don't keep stats on rapes."

Higher mortality rate

The comptroller's staff said it learned from the state health department that in 2003, 24 out of every 100,000 children in Texas died.

Mrs. Strayhorn's aides said they compared that with a projected mortality rate for foster children that year of 115 deaths per 100,000.

At any given time, there are about 19,000 youngsters in foster care. Last year, about 32,500 children passed through the foster care system.

Mr. Azar said confirmed deaths of foster children from abuse and neglect declined to 11 in fiscal 2005, down from 15 the previous year. He questioned comparing all children with foster children, who he said often are "medically fragile" when they enter state custody. He cited recent deaths from cystic fibrosis, bone cancer and shaken baby syndrome.

"The vast majority of the children who are dying in foster care are not dying because of foster care," he said. "They are dying because of the conditions they were in when they entered foster care."

E-mail rtgarrett@dallasnews.com

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