Legislature Takes Three Steps Forward for Texas Kids

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

As children’s advocates, we started this legislative session with high hopes. We talked to lawmakers who understood the importance of children starting school with the skills they need to keep up with their classmates. We worked with lawmakers who want to help vulnerable children avoid and recover from violence, neglect, instability and other traumatic experiences.

They assured us they understood that the accumulations of these childhood experiences alter a child’s brain structure — negative experiences nudging them toward painful and expensive struggles in our classrooms and on the streets, while positive early experiences put them on a path to succeed in school and later in life.

And in three key areas, legislators came through.

Throughout 2014, legislators heard from young people who were removed from their parents and then abused in the very foster homes selected for them by CPS and its contractors. They heard the stories of children killed in foster care. And then they got to work.

The Legislature passed a pair of bills to ensure more foster children receive the treatment that meets their needs and are placed in homes where they will recover and stay safe. Senate Bill 125 requires a comprehensive assessment when children enter foster care, and House Bill 781 strengthens screening and training requirements for prospective foster parents.

These bills acknowledge that there can’t be any shortcuts or blind guesswork when Child Protective Services and foster parents take on the sacred obligation of caring for an abused or neglected child. By helping to get these decisions right, the Legislature is putting these resilient children, committed CPS caseworkers and dedicated foster parents on the right track.

Like foster care, our state’s juvenile justice system is where some children land after experiencing trauma, and where the system should help them to start recovering from that trauma — not deepen it.

In response to reports of physical and sexual abuse of youth in state-run juvenile facilities in 2007, legislators have worked for several sessions to keep these teens safe.

One improvement they worked on this go around was the authority of the independent ombudsman, an office the Legislature originally created after the 2007 abuse scandal. The ombudsman visits juvenile facilities, meets with youth, and identifies systemic problems regarding youth rights and safety.

Until now, however, the ombudsman could only check on youth under the state’s jurisdiction. A teen from Travis County juvenile probation who died at a private facility last year, for example, was not under the jurisdiction of the ombudsman.

This session, as part of an omnibus juvenile justice bill, SB 1630, the Legislature gave the ombudsman the ability to safeguard youth in county and state programs, in both public and contract facilities.

In a third area, early education, the Legislature also took a significant step this year. The Governor’s pre-K bill, HB 4, provides a small but welcome bump in funding for public school pre-K programs that meet new requirements. True, it does not include class size limits or other provisions that many of us recommended, but it takes a first step that future legislatures can build on.

As we look back on the legislative session, we can certainly identify areas where our legislators fell short. We’re deeply disappointed, for instance, that they didn’t pass the bill to include 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system.

But let’s give credit to state leaders where it is due, and then let’s continue to work for more.

Peter Clark is the communications director at Texans Care for Children.