This is one in a series of blog posts about our 2015 legislative agenda.
After a series of troubling reports, numerous legislative hearings, and high-profile deaths of children in the very foster homes the state selected to keep them safe, legislative leaders have made clear that strengthening CPS and improving foster care is a priority for this legislative session. As a former CPS caseworker and now policy advocate, I am frustrated to see the same struggles experienced by caseworkers and children and families I once served. But I am also hopeful we will make meaningful progress this session to protect Texas children from maltreatment, help them heal from their trauma, and ensure they can thrive for a lifetime.
Policymakers have chronically underfunded child protection, failing to provide DFPS (the parent agency of CPS) the resources it needs to fulfill its duties and responsibilities to keep kids safe. In the case of the tragic death of two-year-old Colton Turner, for example, the CPS investigator responsible for ensuring his safety and well-being was responsible for over 30 children at once. While DFPS moves forward with workforce improvements through CPS Transformation, it needs to do more than just patch holes through more streamlined casework processes and technology enhancements. It needs to ensure CPS caseworkers have manageable caseloads that allow them to spend more quality time with children and families.
Any child fatality is a tragedy, but it is even more disturbing when it happens to children in foster care. Texas needs better standards for screening and training of foster parents. If Texas required an annual evaluation of all foster homes, we might catch more red flags and keep more kids safe. With such improvements, maybe Matthew* and his younger siblings would not have been physically abused by their foster mother and I would not have had to express to their parents that the system failed them.
Like 17-year-old Stephanie*, children who run away from foster care often have been abused, neglected, or exploited already. When these children go on to become sex trafficking victims, it shows we as a society haven't done enough to make sure our child protection system lives up to its name. We know that that 67% of likely child trafficking victims reported missing have run away from either foster care or a group home. Texas must do more to keep our youth in foster care safe from exploitation and sex trafficking.
Our pregnant and parenting youth in foster care also need to be provided greater support and services to be healthy and successful parents. Since these parenting children are in the care of our state, we have a critical responsibility to help these young parents find a better future and prevent the continued cycle of mistreatment. As a child of the state, young mom Brittney* deserved the opportunity to bond with her child in a foster home and learn the skills needed to be a safe and healthy mom.
The impact of childhood trauma can last a lifetime. Often, children in foster care receive a number of costly evaluations, psychotropic drugs, and experience multiple placements and never find stability, permanency, and healing. SB 125 by Senator West will improve assessments to ensure children are more quickly matched with the services they need, are more often placed in appropriate settings, and are not assessed and reassessed at great cost to the state.
With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, transitioning foster youth can receive health coverage until 26. Unfortunately, Texas decided to rollback coverage previously provided to youth 21 and under from other states. The new cut-off is age 18. Now, Chris*, who came to Texas for a better life after aging out of care in Michigan, will not be able to access critical health and mental health care and will be treated in more expensive emergency rooms that are paid for, in part, by local tax dollars rather than federally matched Medicaid funding. Our state can’t turn its back on these former foster youth moving to Texas for employment or educational opportunities.
(Names followed by an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.)