‘You Get Tired:’ What the Retiring Leader of Texas’ Foster Care System Told Us

An exit interview with John Specia, on the court-ordered overhaul of his agency and the ills in the foster care system.  

By Joy DiazMarch 28, 2016 12:27 pm,

It’s been a turbulent year for the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). First there was the December court order by a federal judge in Corpus Christi – a sweeping and scathing order condemning what she called a “broken” foster care system, declaring it in violation of the Constitution and demanding a complete overhaul with a special master to be appointed to recommend fixes.

Then reports from facilities in Levelland and Lubbock of urine smells, broken toilets and injuries leading DFPS in February to suspend placements.

Now, John Specia, Jr., the Texas DFPS commissioner, is preparing to leave. He’s announced he will retire in May.

Specia says he made a two-year commitment to the job, more than three years ago. Since then, he’s decided it’s time for him to be with his family. When Specia visited the Standard in March 2015, he foresaw a lot of the issues that have since become headlines.

“Our retention data is getting better. We’re better than we were two years ago,” he said in March 2015. “In three or four years, what I want is a tenured, well-qualified work force, that is well-trained and that is adept at protecting the children of the state of Texas.”

Specia, who will be 67 this year, said he decided not to do another legislative session, which would have committed him for an additional year and a half.

“It’s a very difficult job,” he says. “It is the most interesting and most challenging job I’ve ever had. It’s a 24-7 job and, frankly, you get tired.”

Specia says the Corpus Christi ruling wasn’t the tipping point for him.

“That’s gone on through four commissioners,” he says. “I was there when we tried the case in December 2011 and it was over a year til we got the opinion.”

Judge Janis Jack appointed two special masters to oversee the changes and the same day the Fifth Circuit Court denied a stay for the state agency. The appointees will study the system and provide a report to the court later this year, Specia says. The case looks at the foster care system over the past decade, starting in 2002.

“I don’t agree with everything in that opinion,” he says. “Matter of fact, I think we have a legal chance to have it reversed on appeal. But, at the same time, bad things happen in foster care. We need to improve the foster care system, but that’s not the answer. The answer is permanency – to get kids out of foster care as fast as possible and prevent them from coming in to foster care.”

Listen to the extended interview in the audio player above.