This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.
During the last legislative session, Texas legislators rolled up their sleeves and worked on a bipartisan basis to develop smart ways to keep children in foster care safer. Now that the state has improved the safety measures on the front end of foster care, we need to apply that same shared vision and focus to improving support children receive during and after their placement in foster care.
When the state removes kids from their homes, it is committing to giving them the support they need to overcome their past trauma and have a healthy, more stable childhood. However, the state has more work to do to meet that obligation and ensure these children grow into the healthy, happy and responsible students, neighbors and co-workers that we all want them to be.
Fortunately, our state leaders recognize these challenges. In preparation for the next legislative session, both Speaker of the House Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick directed committees to study foster care. The committees will continue to monitor safety, but we were pleased to see they will also take a broader look at whether children are getting the support they need to succeed in the foster care system and as they transition to adulthood.
A good place to start is with data. This year, the Legislature passed a bill to collect additional data on pregnant and parenting foster youth, equipping legislators with better information to craft solutions next session. For other Texas youth, sex education and family planning decisions are in large part left up to parents. But, without parents to guide them, and with trauma and instability weighing on them, the teen birth rate for girls in foster care is twice the rate of other girls. The consequences are profound. These often ill-prepared youth now face yet another challenge. The baby runs a high risk of enduring the same kind of toxic stress the teen parent experienced during childhood and ending up in foster care, just like his mother.
Texas foster youth also have particularly high rates of obesity and asthma. Shaleiah Fox explains most of the foster youth who walk in the door of her nonprofit Fresh Chef’s Society never had anyone teach them about healthy eating or even how to boil an egg. Bouncing between foster homes, they rarely have the opportunity to play on a soccer team or enjoy other kinds of healthy activities. Additionally, weight gain is often one of the side effects of the psychotropic medications prescribed to foster youth with mental health needs, creating additional urgency to tackle foster youth obesity and health challenges.
Ensuring that children succeed when the state puts them in foster care also means ensuring they can stay on their feet when they age out of the system. An 18-year-old person with a traumatic, unstable childhood and no family to call on for help runs a high risk of ending up homeless. A disproportionate number of the people you see living on the street — or don’t see when they’re living in a car or on a couch — are former foster youth.
Fortunately, there are ways the state can address many of these challenges. Some are targeted. For example, we should strengthen and expand the state’s Supervised Independent Living programs, such as Upbring’s BeReal program, which allow former foster youth ages 18 to 21 to practice self-sufficiency while still receiving some supervision.
There are also broad, cross-cutting approaches. When foster youth experience numerous placements and interact with multiple agencies and health providers, there’s often poor coordination of services, such as mental health treatment. One smart way the House plans to improve coordination is by tackling the poor communication and data-sharing between juvenile probation and CPS when a child in foster care gets in trouble.
Texans Care for Children looks forward to working with the Legislature over the next year to develop effective solutions to ensure children thrive in foster care and beyond.
Ashley Harris is a child protection policy associate at Texans Care for Children and a former CPS caseworker.