The State of Our Children: Child Welfare / Part II

WORDS
The Texas Tribune writers and DFWChild editors
ILLUSTRATION
John J. Custer
PUBLISHED
March 2017 in
DallasChild, FortWorthChild, NorthTexasChild
UPDATED
March 8, 2017
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The status quo: We became too familiar with the tragic story of Leiliana Wright, the 4-year-old Grand Prairie girl who suffered a horrible death at the hands of her mother and her boyfriend, while involved with Child Protective Services (CPS), last March. 
 
Texas’ children facing abuse and neglect, like Leiliana, will be a major focus during this legislative session as lawmakers grapple with the budget and troubling headlines about failings at the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).
 
The agency is facing scrutiny over how officials are managing its $150 million in emergency funding they were allotted for the agency to hire 829 new caseworkers and give $12,000 raises to existing ones. All this, and legislators are filing bills (due this month) that could dramatically change Texas' child welfare system.

Consider this: Texas legislators have said for months they want to help abused and neglected children, but it’s unclear how much lawmakers will deliver on funding.
The DFPS is required to deliver weekly reports to the governor's office and the Legislature on the number of at-risk children who have not been seen by CPS investigators within one day. State lawmakers expressed outrage when they learned thousands of Texas children had not been seen for days, weeks or months at a time by a CPS worker due to high caseloads or an inability to locate them.
In addition, the department has to deliver twice-a-month reports looking at: the number of cases staffers are working on; investigations open for more than two months; salary rates for existing and new hires; and the number of people in training. These reports will likely be seen as a key indicator for legislators on whether the emergency funding is helping. May 1 is a big day for the agency —starting then, caseworkers will have to see 90 percent of "priority one" children, who appear to face immediate risk of physical or sexual abuse, within 24 hours.

The phrase “foster care” appears in 38 filed bills in the House and Senate so far, according to the Texas Legislature Online website. Sen. Jane Nelson, R- Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s Workgroup on Child Protection and Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, jointly filed Senate Bill 11, which would mean a massive overhaul for foster care.

Changes under the bill would include reviewing and extending retention of abuse and neglect records, requiring CPS special investigators to see residential child care facilities abuse victims within three days, implementing benchmarks, funding incentives and consequences for foster care contractors and collaborating with universities to evaluate prevention programs. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has designated S.B. 11 as one of his legislative priorities.

Other bills filed propose giving more financial assistance to caregivers, quicker medical and mental health assessments for children entering the foster care system, establishing county boards to oversee CPS services and tracking repeated child abuse and neglect reports. 
SIDEBAR

Get Involved

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) exists to advocate for abused and neglected children in the child protection system. To speak on their behalf, volunteers must pass a background check, participate in a 30-hour detailed training (including court observation time) and agree to stay with a case until it’s closed (a year and a half on average). Volunteers talk with everyone in the child’s life — parents and relatives, foster parents, teachers, doctors and therapists, attorneys and social workers — then advise judges on the best permanent home for the child. While each case varies, most advocates serve between 5–10 hours per month. Can’t commit to being an advocate volunteer? Use your skills to help produce the local CASA newsletter, recruit volunteers, organize fundraisers and more.
Collin County, 972/529-2272
Dallas County, 214/827-8961

Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center serves abused children by handling the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases. By having CPS, the police, a county assistant district attorney, forensic services, social workers and therapists in one spot, cases are dealt with more efficiently — departments share information, and children aren’t forced to continuously rehash their painful stories. To volunteer, complete a background check, interview and one-time orientation (there are two offered each month). Then you can start spending time (three-hour shifts Monday–Saturday) entertaining kiddos in the playroom while they wait for therapy. Other ways to help? Sign up to work in the business office answering calls and doing clerical work, clean the therapy rooms, organize the clothes closet or help with clothing and diaper drives. (As of press time, Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County did not have any open volunteer opportunities.)  
Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County, Plano, 972/633-6600; caccollincounty.org
Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, Dallas, 214/818-2600; dcac.org

At Jonathan’s Place, neglected or abused children receive temporary care and relief until they can be placed in a foster home. Commit to serving at the Emergency Shelter Direct Care center, where volunteers love on children (ages infant to 17) by assisting them with homework, serving them meals, reading them books or simply playing games and comforting them. To volunteer, complete a background check and application, and attend the orientation.
Garland, 972/303-5303

RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) matches volunteer advocates with refugee families who have been released from detention centers — prison-like facilities that hold asylum-seeking immigrants sometimes for months without a clean change of clothing. As a volunteer, you will provide support to these new arrivals, offering rides to and from the store, clinic or immigration office. Register online.
Dallas, 214/295-9554

Sadly, some kids end up at Cook Children’s Hospital as a result of severe injury and neglect, often at the hands of their parents, who are then denied visits (rightfully so). Kids Crew, volunteers through Alliance for Children feed, sing to, play with and hold these kids who so desperately need love and attention. Sign up for two-hour shifts based on your availability.
Fort Worth, 817/335-7172

Have a little wiggle room in your evening schedule, volunteer as a backup childcare provider at the Children’s Advocacy Center for Denton County’s Lewisville and Denton locations to watch kids between 5–9pm when their parents attend counseling and therapy sessions. Other volunteer opportunities include becoming community ambassadors at events in Denton County, planning the annual Champions for Children Gala which raises $350,000 for child advocacy services, hosting a drive at your church or Adopting a Team — delivering snacks to one of the teams that provides support and legal services to abused children and their families. These teams include CPS staff, forensic interviewers and clinical therapists.  
Denton and Lewisville, 972/317-2818

Lead age-appropriate games, interactive play, crafts, reading and field trips for kids in the Safe Haven shelters in your free time. To get started, complete the application and a background check, and attend a volunteer orientation (there’s one every other month).
Arlington and Fort Worth, 817/502-7154
SIDEBAR

Now Hear This

Facebook shares and likes and Twitter retweets can’t create change. Calling your representatives on the phone (or emailing them can). Calling is the most effective way to have your voice heard (aside from making an in-person visit). Calls are tallied by staffers and the count is given to your representatives, informing them how strongly their constituents feel about an issue. So reach out now. (Type your address into fyi.legis.state.tx.us/Home.aspx to find out who represents you.)
SIDEBAR

An Easy Guide to Contacting Your Rep

Find your reps here

Telephone calls will be taken by a representative’s aide, or you may have to leave a message. After identifying yourself, and providing your phone number, say that you’re a constituent from District ____, ZIP code ____ and that you support or oppose Senate Bill ____ or House Bill ____ (the aide keeps tallies). State the reasons for your support or opposition, then thank your representative for their work.

If you prefer to email, state your purpose for writing in the first paragraph, giving your stance on the Senate or House bill number, and include examples to support your position.

It goes without saying, you should always be courteous and polite, and only address one issue in each phone call or letter. 


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