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Murder of University of Texas freshman shines light on Texas' crumbling foster care system

Apr 19, 2016

Credit Leonardo Aguiar / Flickr Creative Commons / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Earlier this month, 17-year-old Meechaiel Khalil Criner was arrested by Austin police and charged with the murder of 18-year-old University of Texas student Haruka Weiger.

Criner ran away from a foster facility in Killeen, Texas on March 24, less than two weeks before he was arrested.

He has spent most of his life in and out of Texas’ CPS system, bouncing between family members and state foster care facilities after the state of Texas removed Criner from his mother’s care in 2001.

He was removed from his maternal grandmother’s home in 2009 after she was arrested for striking the then-10-year-old in the face with a belt, causing his eye to swell shut, according to the Killeen Daily Herald.

Criner described an unstable childhood in which he was a victim of violence while in the state’s foster care system, according to a 2014 profile published in a Texarkana high school student newspaper.

An unnamed teacher in the Killeen Independent school district said Texas’ CPS system failed Criner. She told The Statesman:

He was abused as a child and abused within the Texas foster care system. I don’t know what help is available for Mick (Criner) but he needs help. I had extensive conversations with him on an almost daily basis and he wrote about his past in some assignments in my class. Everyone is going to want to hang Mick but he is mentally ill and he wasn’t being treated.

This tragedy has illustrated the fact that despite Federal efforts, Texas' foster care system is worsening.

Years of abuse, neglect and shuttling between inappropriate placements across the state has created a population that cannot contribute to society, and proves a continued strain on the government through welfare, incarceration or otherwise.

One year after hearing evidence alleging Texas Child Protective Services had violated foster children's civil rights, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled in December that the Texas foster care system is "illegal, robbing abused children in Texas of their constitutional rights."

According to The Texas Tribune, abused children are being left in psychiatric facilities for an average of 768 days – far past the eight to 10 days covered by Medicaid.

Kids as young as two years old have been hospitalized for mental illness and have waited long periods to be adopted. And The Tribune discovered some abused children have even been sleeping in the offices of CPS employees.

Jack ordered child welfare officials to implement reforms to ensure that foster children are protected, including directing the state to hire enough caseworkers for long-term foster care children “to ensure that caseloads are manageable” in all of the state’s 254 counties.

Judge Jack has appointed two special masters to oversee the state's cleanup of the system, but state Attorney General Ken Paxton has fought the ruling at every step.

In her ruling, Judge Jack said of the system:

Years of abuse, neglect and shuttling between inappropriate placements across the state has created a population that cannot contribute to society, and proves a continued strain on the government through welfare, incarceration or otherwise.

As we've mentioned before, at any given time, 400,000 kids across the country – 13,000 in Michigan – are in foster care at any given time.

There's a lot of research about how trauma impacts a child's brain, and how countless former foster care youth suffer from mental illness.

And we've brought you stories of former foster care youth, who have been in and out of jail and homelessness, who suffer from mental illness, and have said the system "makes you feel disposable."

Who knows if Criner's history in the foster care system contributed to the crime he is charged with committing. But data showing barriers foster children face to living a healthy and productive life are cause for alarm. According to the the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency:

One study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that nearly half (47.9 percent) of youth in foster care were determined to have clinically significant emotional or behavioral problems. Likewise, researchers at the Casey Family Programs estimate that between one-half and three-fourths of children entering foster care exhibit behavioral or social competency problems that warrant mental health services. 

Youth who have “aged out” of foster care also show high rates of psychiatric disability. According to a study by the Casey Family Programs and Harvard Medical School, a high number of former foster children have psychiatric disabilities as adults. Over half of foster care alumni had diagnoses compared to 22 percent of the comparison group.

Hopefully we can glean some better understanding of what might help foster care youth overcome their pasts and find success, however they define it.