Young adults who grew up in Texas' foster care system recounted harrowing stories of abuse and emotional trauma Thursday for members of a legislative committee looking for ways to better protect such children.
Some choked back tears during a hearing of the Texas House Select Committee on Child Protection, and chairwoman Dawnna Dukes said what she heard made foster care sometimes sound "like prison."
The state's 17,000-child foster system has been under intense scrutiny since seven children died of abuse or neglect in fiscal year 2013. Another three died "in kinship care," after being assigned to live with relatives.
This year, one foster child has died, but officials are still investigating two siblings in foster care, ages 4 and 6, who drowned July 6 in Lake Georgetown, near Austin. An outside review found child protective caseworkers only spend 26 percent of their job meeting with youngsters and families.
Lena Francis, now 20, testified that she was in foster care in Houston from birth until age 7 -- then adopted. She said she was often locked in a dark room for hours and prohibited from eating or drinking.
"These agencies, they don't know what happens. And how can you report that because, at the end of the day, you've still got to go home with that person?" Francis said, her voice cracking.
Frances said Texas should mandate drug testing for potential foster and adoptive parents, as well as institute random visits to homes where children are placed.
"For the most part, we're being abused," Frances said. "I want people to be held accountable."
Roshaude Williams, 23, said he was in foster care until age 19 and lived in two-dozen homes around Texas. He said foster parents put him on medications he didn't need because state funding increased for youngsters with medical problems -- and that he eventually attempted suicide by walking into traffic.
"I guess it's all right now, but I've had 20-something jobs," Williams said. "I can't hold one down."
John Specia, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, said that the system fails when children are shuttled between so many homes. He said he's pushing for an agency "culture change" that would make foster care placements more permanent, saying no child should reach adulthood while still bouncing around the system.
"I've met very, very few children that aged out of the foster care system, that were in the system for any length of time, that had a good experience," said Specia who has been in his post about 18 months. "If a child goes in at 2 and ages out at 18, we've failed miserably and the child is going to have very, very serious problems."
Specia said that, today, 40 percent of Texas foster children have been placed with relatives, and that he'd like to see that increase.
"We have problems in some foster homes I will not deny that," Specia said. "We have an awful lot of good providers out there doing a good job, and we have a lot of foster parents out there doing a good job."
Dukes responded: "And we have a lot of folks that are not, and that's the reason we are having hearings."