Five Children’s Issues Texas Lawmakers Must Tackle in this Legislative Session

Similar versions of this op-ed appeared in the Houston ChronicleFort Worth Star-Telegram and the McAllen Monitor.

As state legislators gather in Austin to start the 2017 legislative session, several children’s issues are front and center on the agenda. If the Legislature gets them right, it will make a big difference in kids’ lives today, and to the future prosperity of our state. Here are five high-profile issues to keep an eye on:       

Ensure Child Protective Services (CPS) can keep kids safe and help them succeed if they enter foster care. We appreciate that state leaders have already taken important initial steps to protect kids, but there is much more work to do. The Legislature must invest in reducing CPS staff caseloads and turnover, both in foster care and in investigations of reported neglect and abuse. Lawmakers must improve reimbursement rates for foster care homes and services for kids removed from their families, particularly those with significant mental health or other challenges. Other critical steps include improving oversight and investigation of unsafe foster care homes, which we’re glad to see in Senator Schwertner’s omnibus CPS bill, SB 11.

Restore therapy funding for kids with disabilities. Our recent report found that thousands of babies and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays are missing out on Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) services due to a combination of state budget cuts to ECI and state Medicaid cuts to pediatric therapies. Legislators should prioritize funding for both. This experience confirms that it’s a mistake to cut basic health services just because the budget is tight.

Ensure the new pre-k grants (and young kids) are successful. Schools are halfway through the first year of the pre-k grant program established by HB 4 in 2015. There has been high demand from school districts, but the funding allotted to each student is about half of what Governor Abbott originally envisioned. Just to maintain the same level of per-student funding over the next two-year budget, the Legislature must double the $118 million appropriation it provided for the single school year funded in the current budget. And there are additional ways to leverage the long-term impact of early childhood experiences. The Legislature should listen to the 50-plus Texas health groups that recently called on the state to incentivize child care centers to be good partners with parents in helping kids develop a healthy weight and healthy habits.

Provide mental health support for students, new moms, and other Texans. Preparing to make mental health a priority for this session, House Speaker Straus created a Select Committee to make recommendations to legislators. The Committee’s new report makes clear that Texas needs a strategy to help students succeed in the classroom by providing additional mental health services on campus and in the community. It also recommends expanding access to mental health services for new moms, a campaign pledge that Governor Abbott made but the Legislature didn’t take up in 2015. The report urges lawmakers to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from the current 60 days to one year and consider allowing pediatricians to screen new moms for postpartum depression during babies’ well checks.

Continue juvenile justice reforms by raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction. Texas automatically sends 17-year-olds to the adult criminal justice system when they get in trouble, no matter how minor their offense. Momentum built during the 2015 session for making the juvenile system the default for 17-year-olds while still allowing judges to certify teens as adults when deemed appropriate. Holding 17-year-olds accountable in the juvenile system would cut down on repeat crime and save taxpayer money on retrofitting jails to keep 17-year-olds separate from adults. It would also reduce the risk of sexual assault of youth in the system and reduce the number of Texans who face difficulty getting a job, college education, or housing because of an adult criminal record earned before they turned 18.

Over the next 140 days, Texans will be watching to ensure our state leaders make real progress on these critical issues.

Stephanie Rubin is CEO of Texans Care for Children