P.O. Box 12068, State Capitol
Austin, Texas 78711
Tel. (512) 463-0112
Fax (512) 463-0923
TEXAS LEGISLATURE CONFRONTS CHILD ABUSE
Children should not be harmed. In a perfect world, we wouldn't need an entire state agency dedicated to protecting children. Adults have the responsibility to ensure children in their care are safe, loved, and supported. As we reflect on Child Abuse Prevention Month, we remember that unfortunately, that's not the world in which we live.
Last year the state received 18,545 reports of child abuse and neglect. During my tenure as chair of the Senate's Health and Human Services Committee, no issue has been more heart-wrenching -- or more complex -- than our efforts to protect and care for children.
In the months leading up to the 2005 session, 137 Texas children died of abuse -- many after multiple Child Protective Services visits. An audit revealed that caseworkers were taking the wrong actions 66 percent of the time. That year, the Legislature approved my SB 6, which increased salaries, added caseworkers and promoted better cooperation with child advocates, law enforcement and community resources. We lowered caseloads for investigators and increased our caseworker work force by 31 percent.
Then the challenges shifted to foster care. We were horrified to learn that some placement agencies had literally lost track of children or placed them in homes that, in some cases, were worse than the environments from which they had been removed. The Legislature responded with a reform package in 2007 that increased reimbursement rates for foster care providers, added background checks, enhanced inspections and strengthened oversight.
In the years since, the Legislature has focused on ways to improve outcomes for children in the foster care system. Studies have shown that children aging out of the foster system have significantly higher rates of homelessness and post-traumatic stress than the population at large. We expanded eligibility for tuition benefits from age 21 to age 25 for individuals aging out of the foster system and increased access to transitional housing, counseling and other community services. Last session the Legislature approved SB 218, which strengthened mental health training for caseworkers and mental health services for the children in their care.
Despite our current budgetary challenges, in 2011 the Legislature increased funding for the Department of Family and Protective Services. In fact, the state pledged millions of its own dollars to make up for a loss of federal funds and authorized the hiring of 250 additional caseworkers.
As we prepare for the next legislative session, our committee is studying ways to further improve the quality of care for children in the system, including strategies for recruiting and retaining our best caseworkers -- who are doing heroic work on behalf of Texas children. A public hearing last month revealed new challenges that must be addressed in the next legislative session.
My sincere hope is that, as we observe Child Abuse Prevention Month, all Texans will take a moment to reflect on the plight of abused children. Let's give thanks for the thousands of foster parents who open up their hearts and homes for these young Texans. We must also remember the over 5,000 caseworkers who every day investigate heart-breaking cases of abuse and make life-or-death decisions on behalf of Texas children.
For more information about child abuse in Texas, visit www.preventchildabusetexas.org. If you ever suspect that a child is being harmed, report your concerns immediately to Child Protective Services by phone at (800) 252-5400 or online at www.txabusehotline.org.
SENATOR JANE NELSON represents District 12, including portions of Tarrant and Denton Counties. She is Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services.