This commentary appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.
Now that Democrats and Republicans have picked their nominees for the fall, Texans need more answers about how state candidates would tackle some of the key issues facing the next Legislature. They may not be the hot-button issues featured in campaign ads or Twitter wars, but they are the stuff of running a state government — and they make a world of difference to children and families throughout Texas.
1. How will you ensure that the state’s child abuse investigators and foster care caseworkers have safe, manageable caseloads?
Last year there was a spike in the number of Texas kids killed in foster care — meaning the state of Texas took them from their parents for safety reasons and delivered them to dangerous homes. Other Texas children tell horror stories of abuse by their foster families or biological parents.
In addition to better screenings for foster parents and services for at-risk parents, abused kids need CPS caseworkers that can spend the time to spot red flags and keep children out of high-risk homes. But CPS staffers are tasked with monitoring many more kids than experts recommend. Staff caseloads and child safety merely improved from a five-alarm crisis to a four-alarm emergency after the Legislature restored some of the funding lost during 2011.
2. How will you make sure that child care centers offer safe class sizes and the attention kids need to prepare for elementary school?
In 2010, the state agency tasked with keeping kids safe in child care declared, "The agency does not believe that the current standards for group size … or ratios adequately protect the health and safety of children in some age ranges.”
Four years later, the state still allows a single caregiver to monitor 15 3-year-olds. With a little luck, she might keep them safe all day, but it will be tough to corral them long enough to read them a book or provide the attention they need during this crucial stage of brain development.
The state receives federal funding to improve child care quality by reducing class sizes or training teachers, but the Legislature raided the funds to keep basic child care licensing operations in place.
3. What is your plan for closing the health coverage gap?
Texas is one of the remaining states with no affordable coverage options for uninsured workers earning less than $24,000 for a family of four. The Legislature has turned down Medicaid expansion, but state leaders should develop a conservative alternative to accept federal health funds to offer families a coverage option.
4. How will you ensure the Legislature makes strategic investments in a better future?
Our state is out of the recession, but services for kids haven’t recovered from the deep cuts of 2011 and — in many cases — the chronic underfunding of the past decade. Will state leaders ensure we have functioning programs for child abuse prevention and therapy for autism and developmental delays? What about child care inspections, public schools, and rehab for kids in juvenile facilities? Will it put more kids on a path to fall short of their potential and disrupt our classrooms, or will it put more kids on a path to succeed in school and life?
Texas children and families are counting on you to come up with the right answers.
Peter Clark is the communications director at Texans Care for Children.