AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A spike in the number of Texas children dying in foster care is prompting state officials to demand a tougher screening process for foster parents.
Ten foster children died under suspicious circumstances in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, state officials said Friday. Patrick Crimmins with the state Department of Family and Protective Services told The Dallas Morning News that four of the deaths have been ruled the result of abuse and neglect, while the other six remain under investigation.
Two foster children died from abuse and neglect in the prior year.
"We are extremely concerned about this trend," Crimmins said. "We are working very hard on this because there can be no mistakes or oversights related to child safety."
The increase has resulted in the state telling private contractors to more thoroughly vet prospective parents. Officials want workers to look for signs of mistreatment, however small, as they visit children in foster homes.
Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia wrote a letter this month to the more than 300 private child-placing agencies and residential treatment centers in Texas, urging them to redouble their efforts to keep children safe.
Specia's letter came as scrutiny intensified for the Dallas-Fort Worth and Central Texas operations of Texas Mentor. The Boston-based company recruited a Central Texas woman now charged with capital murder in the head-slamming death of a 2-year-old girl.
The state has ordered the Dallas branch of the for-profit company to take corrective actions. Officials also extended for six months their February sanction of Texas Mentor's Arlington office.
Together, the two offices manage about 130 foster homes in North Texas. Over the last two years nearly 150 deficiencies were found in those homes. More than 50 of them were of high severity, such as when a visiting adult relative shared a bed with a foster child.
Texas Mentor executive Wendy Bagwell said company officials have tackled the shortcomings "through a self-initiated plan of action which we have shared with the department."
She denied that care has deteriorated in Dallas-Fort Worth homes managed by Texas Mentor. It's the state's No. 3 foster care contractor, each year caring for about 1,000 children whom state Child Protective Services removes from their families.
"We take each and every incident seriously," Bagwell said. But "it is important to consider the number of standards that are reviewed and evaluated by the state" — more than 43,000 in the past two years at Texas Mentor homes.
"Those reviews identified a total of 331 deficiencies, which represents significantly less than 1 percent of all standards evaluated," Bagwell said.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com