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Judge fines Texas HHSC $100K per day over foster care abuse and neglect investigations

A federal judge has ruled that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) is in contempt of court for failing to properly investigate allegations of abuse and neglect by children in the state's custody.

The ruling, handed down Monday, comes nearly five months after a three-day hearing last December, during which the court heard from a number of witnesses, including a former foster child, multiple caseworkers and attorneys who represent current foster children and experts in psychotropic medications and other areas of child welfare. 

"I'm just sorry we're at this point," U.S. District Judge Janis Jack said to the court on the final day of the hearing.

Jack's 427-page order includes recaps of the two prior contempt orders she's handed down in the state's nearly 13-year lawsuit over failures in its foster care system. The order also lays out dozens of pages of evidence presented in the hearing as well as findings from court-appointed monitors who found shortcomings in timeliness, accuracy and eventual outcomes of the investigations conducted by HHSC's Provider Investigations unit which is responsible for these investigations in state-run facilities like group homes. 

The judge's order stated that she found the HHSC to be in violation of two of the court's remedial orders that specifically address the required completion of abuse and neglect investigations for children in the state's care within a certain time window, especially for children in more high-risk situations. 

Jack ordered HHSC, specifically naming HHSC Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young, to pay a fine of $50,000 for each of its two violations per day until the department presents the court with proof that it's processes are in compliance. 

Jack's order also stated that she will consider more requests from the attorneys representing the children in foster care, who are the plaintiffs in the case, to find the state in contempt for other violations as well as a request to place portions of the state's foster care system in receivership. Placing the system in receivership would allow for the judge to appoint outside experts to be in charge of the system while deficiencies are addressed.

A hearing has been scheduled for June 26 to address the state's compliance with other court orders and other potential fines.

This is the third time Judge Jack has found the state to be in contempt of court since this lawsuit began in 2011.

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