Give foster children tools for the future

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January 24, 2016


The foster children of Texas are our children, they are our responsibility, and the Legislature needs to put its priorities in order. Given enough support and resources, children in the care of our state will become our doctors, teachers, scientists and community leaders. Right now, their opportunity to reach the ambitious goals we would set for our own children is virtually nonexistent.

On Dec. 17, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi wrote a scathing review of the Texas foster care system. The case, brought by an organization named Children’s Rights on behalf of several current foster care youth, alleges that caseworkers who are supposed to be reuniting families are overburdened with extremely high caseloads and that the state has relied on foster group homes, which lack sufficient supervision. Judge Jack found that the state has been unconstitutionally negligent of its children in foster care.

She wrote: “Children often enter foster care at the basic service level, are assigned a carousel of overburdened caseworkers, suffer abuse and neglect that is rarely confirmed or treated, are shuttled between placements — often inappropriate for their needs — throughout the State, are migrated through schools at a rate that makes academic achievement impossible, are medicated with psychotropic drugs, and then age out of foster care at the Intense service level, damaged, institutionalized, and unable to succeed as adults.”

The state has failed our children. We must not let it continue.

I have advocated on behalf of survivors of child abuse and neglect my entire career. I have worked with my colleagues for programs to prevent child abuse, and the efforts have yielded increased investments in evidence-based programs. I have filed bills and rider requests session after session to hire additional caseworkers and to pay a competitive salary. During the 84th legislative session, we made substantial changes to caseworker compensation, training and recruiting practices.

The Department of Family and Protective Services has expanded evidence-based prevention programs, and has begun focusing on community relationships and cooperation. I believe the department is open and transparent about the remaining challenges and needed improvements. The department has been stretched too thin for too many years. We have been taking steps in the right direction when we should have been making leaps.

The Legislature must take Judge Jack’s ruling to heart and stand ready to take action. We must increase the number of caseworkers to adequately meet our children’s needs. We need additional foster families and kinship placements, people who are willing and able to house siblings, but we cannot expect them to shoulder 100 percent of costs of raising these children. If a grandmother is able and willing to take in her grandchildren, we need to help with day care and diapers.

Our faith-based community has a long history of supporting children in foster care. We need more churches to take foster care children under their wings, to help provide wraparound services, to be a stable community as the child navigates the challenges of growing up without a traditional family structure. Many areas of the state are desperate for more CASA volunteers. These heroes go with children to court and speak up on behalf of the best interests of the foster care child to which they are assigned. Our CASA volunteers become a stable and consistent presence during turbulent times. The Legislature, through the budgeting process, can make all these programs and initiatives easier and better.

We have the ultimate resources and the responsibility to make sure that the children in foster care — our children — are provided the resources they need to be successful adults. We have both a legal and a moral obligation to take care of these children. This isn’t rocket science; it’s paying for our priorities. It’s putting our kids first.