Children need support before they reach crisis

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the McAllen Monitor.

Texas lawmakers took important steps last session to protect children after a crisis in their lives becomes evident, but made little progress in keeping Texas kids out of these situations.

Legislators beefed up safeguards for children after they have been removed from their parents and entered the foster care system. They expanded the authority of the juvenile justice ombudsman to keep youth safe after they’ve landed in juvenile facilities. And lawmakers took steps to help youth after they’ve encountered a mental health crisis.

We applaud our state lawmakers for taking these important steps. But state leaders also need to work on preventing crises in our children’s lives and steering them away from these systems in the first place, which in turn will save taxpayer money and help children avoid experiencing emotional and physical trauma that can affect the rest of their lives.

A growing body of research shows that investing in children and supporting families early pays dividends down the road. Childhood experiences literally alter the brain’s architecture. The research on child development supported Gov. Greg Abbott’s emphasis on pre-K for four year olds, although the earlier years of life are also critical windows of opportunity for shaping children’s educational, health and life trajectories.

A strong early childhood intervention (ECI) system, for example, is a key component of this work, providing targeted, family-focused services to young children with developmental delays and disabilities to help them grow, communicate, and meet early childhood milestones. Left unchecked, developmental delays and disabilities in early childhood can grow into more severe challenges later, increasing reliance on more costly systems like special education. Unfortunately, the Legislature shortchanged ECI and cut Medicaid rates for certain therapies for children.

The Legislature should also consider more ways to strengthen children’s families. Ensuring more Texas women have health insurance before, during, and after a pregnancy, for example, is critical to a child’s health and the family’s financial stability. Reaching this goal will be more difficult as long as the Legislature turns down federal funds to ensure low-wage workers have a health coverage option.

Ensuring families have an opportunity to achieve financial stability is also critical. A pediatrician appointment can pose a dilemma if it means dipping into the rent money or skipping a shift at work. Consider the added challenges of finding safe child care for a mom who finishes her day job and then has to clean office buildings at night to make ends meet. According to one recent study, the stress of poverty impacts the brain the same way a sleepless all-nighter does.

Families are strengthened by bolstering home visiting services, including the state’s program connecting low-income, first-time moms with registered nurses who help provide support, education and counseling. Rigorous evaluations of home-visiting models show that they help parents care for their kids in ways that improve language development and academic success while reducing the risk of Child Protective Services’ involvement.

Lawmakers acknowledged during this session the importance of preventing children from reaching a crisis point. It directed CPS to come up with a plan to strengthen families through prevention and intervention services, making sure they coordinate with programs in other state agencies.

Let’s hope that’s the Legislature’s first step towards focusing more on preventing crises, intervening early and strengthening families. By supporting families and children earlier, we can help more youth avoid severe mental health challenges and involvement in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

Alice Bufkin is early opportunities policy associate for Texans Care for Children.