In the wake of the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, there has been a significant focus on Texas' foster-care system, and here in Kerr County, there's an outlier example of foster care at the Hill Country Youth Ranch.
In her second year as executive director, Krystle Ramsay said she feels the focus of federal courts on the state's system, along with her residential care center, being under its own microscope after a pair of former employees faced investigation and arrests for allegedly inappropriate relationships with children at the ranch.
"So, you're working in a system, but you are a system working with other systems," Ramsay said of the complexity of working within Texas' foster care system. "And so, it becomes really difficult because it's so big and you can't like we've talked about all the time. There's not a one-size-fits-all model."
After taking over for longtime executive director and ranch founder Gary Priour, Ramsay has charted her path with a more clinical focus on caring for some of the foster system's most abused and neglected children.
"In the state evaluation, the state evaluates all different types of programs, and we ranked first in many categories when it came to our residential treatment," Ramsay said. "That says a lot because some of those categories, we're going up against 66 other providers. But our kids do so well. It's because we really try to make their life as normal and provide that family environment as we possibly can."
However, the ranch has run into what seems unavoidable for many schools and institutions — allegations of abuse of trust. That's happened twice involving former ranch employees in the last year.
"We love our kids, you know, and it sadly happens everywhere in the school systems, in churches," Ramsay said. "I had someone tell me that people like that are ants drawn to sugar. Like, they're just going to find it out. We do everything we can to set up good safety parameters trying to, you know, enforce things but at the end of the day, I can't allow things like that or that fine microscope to keep me from doing what I think is in the best interest of our kids."
But now comes the microscope of Texas' political situation as opponents of Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans will point out that the state's foster care system is stressed. For more than a decade, a New York-based federal Judge Janis Jack, has raised concerns about the management of the system, and in June, she told the state she would levy fines for not improving or following her directions.
When Texas moved to ban abortion, one upheld by the Supreme Court's decision to return rulemaking to the state, it prompted criticism of the state and a renewed focus on an overwhelmed foster care system. The Austin American-Statesman's editorial board opined the only way to fix the state's system was an unthinkable mess to many state leaders.
"If Texas won't fix a child foster care system that remains dangerously broken after two decades of neglect, the federal government should step up pressure to comply with their recommendations for reform or take the task out of Texas' hands," the board wrote.
And this is where Ramsay is steadfast because she frequently argues that in some cases, children are better off in the institutions rather than being returned to custodial parents or in foster homes, where there is already a shortage of qualified care.
"I think it's a systemic problem, and the goal for the state is always to reunify, right?" Ramsay said. "So, I've seen all different patterns of removals. I've seen patterns of just the culture shifts."
In Ramsay's assessment, many of these children are highly traumatized, and the focus needs to be on creating a safe space for those children.
"I just don't think it's the right way to work with our kids are though those kids are going to be highly traumatized for the rest of their lives," Ramsay said. "They need to look at a different way to meet their educational needs because when you don't feel safe, your brain does not work.So, they cannot go into that same environment and expect them to be able to read, to do the math, to take, you know, the STAR test. It's just not going to happen."