Attorneys representing children in federal nursing lawsuits reprimanded for hiring lobbyists

Texas lawmakers and a federal judge say attorneys in the case against the state’s Department of Family and Protection Services should not hire lobbyists with court-won funds.

In response to the lawmaker’s rebuke, attorneys representing Texas foster children in an ongoing federal case against the state have suspended their lobbying this term.

Lawyers had hired five lobbyists to push for state funding to upgrade the department’s family and protection services technology system and increase pay for family carers.

These lobbyists would have been paid a total of $20,000 per month for the entire legislature, using funds awarded in court. Among the dedicated lobbyists was Albert Hawkins, a former executive commissioner of the Health and Human Services Commission and an original defendant in the lawsuit.

But key lawmakers and the federal judge overseeing the case have balked at hiring lobbyists.

State Senator Lois Kolkhorst on Thursday expressed concerns about the attorneys in the federal lawsuit, which hired independent lobbyists. Kolkhorst is the chair of the Senate House and Human Services Committee at this session.

“This is an alarming practice and raises questions about their future role and intentions,” Kolkhorst said in a written statement. “These revelations create the impression of blurred lines between the court observers, the federal judge and the attorneys representing the children in this case.”

Rep. James Frank, the chairman of the House Human Services Committee, has also challenged the federal lawsuit for years, saying that the substantial sum of state money to cover court fees could have been diverted to DFPS services. Frank told The Dallas Morning News that “the shakedown continues — now on a professional level.”

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“The decision to suspend lobbying was made after we learned of the response from Chairman Frank and Chairman Kolkhorst,” said Kelly Darby, a spokeswoman for Paul Yetter, the case’s lead counsel. “Our goal – our only goal – has always been to support the state and help it bring the system to the point where children are not harmed, but cared for.”

Any funds already paid to the lobbyists will be refunded by Yetter, she said.

Nearly a decade ago, US District Judge Janis Graham Jack declared that Texas foster children would leave state foster care more damaged than when they arrived. Jack has ordered a long list of reforms: hire more caseworkers, stop placing children in unsafe environments, prosecute child abuse. She also appointed court observers to track state compliance.

The lawsuit comes with a hefty price tag. DFPS and the Health and Human Services Commission have paid at least $41.3 million to the court observers since their appointment in 2019. DFPS has seven full-time employees, non-attorneys, with combined annual 2023 salaries of $559,544 dedicated to work on the federal prosecution. The attorneys representing the children have also received nearly $6 million in court fees.

Yetter said he and the other attorneys representing the children in the case worked for nothing. The awarded attorney’s fees were placed in an escrow account for the children of the state. Yetter previously offered to put the trust funds into a new technology scheme, but said the state never responded.

“We had hoped to work with state agencies in the legislature to obtain the funding needed for a secure system,” Yetter said in a written statement. “There are important reforms waiting to be implemented and all we hear from the state is, ‘We don’t have the money.'”

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Photo: Portraits of adoptable children on display at the Austin Office of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Child Protective Services in 2019. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

BY SNEHA DEY with Texas Tribune.