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Siblings drown during underwater breath-holding game

AUSTIN, Texas — Two foster children who drowned near Austin over the July 4th weekend were placed in their home by the same Arizona-based company hired by the state to redesign the foster care system in Texas.

Authorities said Monday that no criminal charges are expected against the foster parents of a 4-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister. They were playing a game at Lake Georgetown on Sunday to see who could hold their breath under water the longest, Georgetown police Capt. Roland Waits said.

The children were put in their foster home by Providence Kids, the child-placing agency of Providence Services Corp., which in December won a state contract to operate a pilot program to overhaul the foster care system in Texas. A phone message to the company was not immediately returned Monday.

Scrutiny on the child welfare system in Texas has intensified after foster care deaths tied to abuse and neglect rose sharply last year. There has been one so far this year, and the Texas Department of Family Protective Services is investigating this weekend’s deaths.

Providence Kids currently has 29 children in eight homes. Placement of other children by Providence Kids is suspended while the state investigates, agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins said.

Child advocates said the deaths underscore the need for more screening and training of foster parents regardless of the outcome of the investigation.

“Certainly the state shouldn’t push further privatization under Foster Care Redesign until better safety standards are in place,” said Ashley Harris, a former state caseworker who now oversees child welfare policy for the group Texans Care for Children.

The siblings who drowned had been with their foster parents since last year. Crimmins said there had been no prior serious concerns with the home.

Providences has worked with the state since 1998. The redesign contract calls for Providence to subcontract with child-placement agencies with the intent of keeping foster children closer to home, siblings together and improve quality.

An outside review released last month found that child protective caseworkers in Texas only spend 26 percent of their job actually meeting with children and families.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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