The Kids Aren’t Alright: How Texas puts its children at risk

Texas’-most-vulnerable-children-remain-at-risk-following-weak-legislation

By CHRISTOPHER ADAMS

Texas ranked 41 in the foundation’s 2019 Kids Count Data Book, underscoring the shortcomings of interrelated systems to competently support the welfare of children throughout the state.

A recent report released by the Anne E. Casey Foundation revealed that children in Texas are living in a state of muffled well-being.

The state received rankings of 39, 30, 39 and 47 in economic well-being, education, health and family/community, respectively.

“When looking at factors like child poverty, lack of health insurance, teen pregnancies, and other indicators listed in the report this ranking is, unfortunately, accurate,” wrote Amy Knop-Narbutis, a senior research analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), in an email to Reform Austin. CPPP is an independent Texas public policy organization that uses data and analysis to advocate for solutions.

Knop-Marbutis cited recent U.S. Census data reporting that the Lone Star state has an alarming rate of uninsured children. The Kids Count Data Book reported that one in five Texas kids lives in poverty and nearly one in 11 American children lives in Texas.

“The opportunities we provide for kids in Texas will truly help determine our nation’s future,” she wrote.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services 2018 Data Card indicated there were 66,382 confirmed cases of child/abuse neglect in the state. As of 2018, there were 7,583,816 children in Texas. In California, there were 65,342 victims of child abuse and neglect and a total of 9,044,860 in 2017, the latest year for that particular data. This means that one out of every 114 children in Texas was abused or neglected and one out of 138 children in California was abused or neglected, a state that has nearly 2 million more kids than Texas.

The escalation of children without health insurance only began in 2017, said Will Francis, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers-Texas, in an interview with Reform Austin.

“We have seen that declining for years and that to me is a giant red flag because kids without insurance means parents without insurance and that means no access to doctors, no access to primary care physicians, no access to some of the treatments we need,” he said.

The 39 ranking in health concerns the CPPP. According to the policy organization, Georgetown University Center for Children and Families reported that approximately 146,000 kids lost Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) insurance or Medicaid benefits last year. CPPP further noted that state lawmakers came up short in furnishing continuous health coverage over a 12-month period for children enrolled in Medicaid.

“I think the fact that we don’t have Medicaid expansion, the fact that we have 5 million uninsured Texans…that health care piece to me that funnels into CPS (Child Protective Services) and that should be red flags for everyone that our CPS system is going to get taxed if we don’t focus on the health care, especially health care for kids,” Francis said.

Expansion was created to extend coverage to those whose incomes were too high for Medicaid eligibility but too low to afford health insurance. It is available to states under the Affordable Care Act, but Medicaid expansion in Texas has been stymied by politics. Texas is one of only 14 states that has opted not to expand Medicaid. Proponents of expanded Medicaid say it will provide more than 1 million Texans with health care coverage. 

Forbes reported that a recent statewide poll of Texas adults, conducted by the Episcopal Health Foundation, indicated that 64 percent of people surveyed support expansion.

Mary Christine Reed, who leads the Texas Foster Youth Justice Project for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), said her organization tries to ensure kids receive Medicaid but said there have been a plethora of problems and inconsistencies as far as enrollment, re-enrollment and maintaining one’s status in the program. She said an inadequate computer system was a large part of the problem. An Affordable Care Act provision stipulates that foster children aging out of the system are eligible for health care until they are 26, as long as they were in foster care the day before their 18th birthday.

Fostering numbers

Foster care is another aspect of child well-being that is missing the mark. Reed said there is a significant push to get foster youth out of long-term care and into a permanency situation regardless if it is a good fit or not. And in the process kids lose access to foster benefits and services because once they leave they are not permitted to come back into foster care. She thinks the urgency of CPS to transition kids from a foster to a permanent situation is partly due to the state agency wanting to show numbers that reflect very few youths are exiting or aging out of the system.

Reed said she worked with a 17-year-old girl who had been in a supportive foster situation. She had attended the same school for several years and was involved in activities. But CPS tried to move the girl out of foster care and place her with an adoptive family. The girl was close to aging out but they wanted to place her somewhere anyway. The girl agreed to visit a family for a couple of weekends but was set on remaining with her foster family and graduating from high school. According to Reed, CPS pushed the girl to go for an additional weekend. She went but CPS would not let her return to the foster family. Nor was she allowed to talk to her foster mother or say goodbye to anyone at her high school. The girl promptly left the adoption family when she turned 18 and went back to her foster mother, albeit without any foster care benefits. TRLA filed a complaint, helped her legally change her surname back to her birth name, retrieved her belongings and got her supplemental security income that was still going to the adoption family. 

But not all kids have a TRLA coming up alongside them. Reed said these issues arise “when you have staff that are poorly trained or have too many cases…or inexperienced, they have had turnover…they just don’t know how to handle things very well.”

She feels that child welfare is underfunded in Texas and that CPS caseloads are too big, undermining even the best caseworkers.

Francis said the state sunk a substantial amount of money into CPS during the prior legislative session but forgot to repeat the process in 2019. 

“It was the focus. Child welfare was the thing,” he said. “And so I think legislators walked away thinking, ‘well, we don’t have to put any more money into it, we sort of solved this problem. Let’s move on’.”

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which oversees CPS, views it differently. The department believes the state has been very helpful in facilitating its obligations to children.

“We investigate child abuse and neglect, and I am not sure we are mentioned in the Casey report, that typically looks at factors like education, health care/insurance, family issues, access to nutritious foods, overall well-being, etc,” wrote DFPS Media Relations Manager Patrick Crimmins in an email to Reform Austin. “Yes, Governor Abbott and the Legislature have been very supportive of the agency and responsive to our appropriations requests.”

Through the cracks

It’s common knowledge the state has failed in its efforts to adequately fund public schools, and maybe that trend has begun to change with some of the legislation passed in Austin this year. But many schoolchildren still require crucial resources. The Dallas ISD is an apposite example of a system in need.

Ana Schaller, director of educational services at Catholic Charities of Dallas, said deficiencies in literacy and early learning are what they’re targeting, specifically the kids who possess learning challenges.

“I know the Dallas school district has tried to learn from their special-ed program, but it’s still not a quality program,” she said. “So there are kids that are falling through the cracks, and you know, one of our goals is to make sure that early on with our youngest children, we work with those specialists and those intervention specialists who can help us identify signs of learning differences.”

Only about half of the kids in the Dallas ISD are ready to enter kindergarten Schaller said, adding that the adverse impact of not being prepared for one grade is perpetuated in successive grades. Their mission is to work with both the student and parent to ensure a successful outcome. 

Catholic Charities of Dallas has an afterschool program of 100 kids, pre-K through fifth grade, focusing on reading skills and continuing into the summer with a reading camp.  

Schaller described the situation of a girl who they began working with at three years of age. The young girl suffered from a speech delay and had no verbal expression. After intensely working with her for 2.5 years, exceptional progress was made in her ability to verbally communicate, which allowed her to enter conventional kindergarten. Schaller said that being vigilant of everything, i.e., what was happening in the classroom, data analysis of assessments and consideration of parental input, made an appreciable difference. 

“Had she not had those experiences, I’m not sure that she would have been in a mainstream kindergarten,” Schaller said. “She would have ended up in a special-ed classroom.”

The girl was fortunate she was caught in time by a nonprofit entity. But it begs the question of how many kids end up somewhere that they don’t belong.

“I think we’re far from having a really quality process in place…I don’t think we’ve even touched children with learning differences or learning challenges,” Schaller said. “I think we’re still way behind the times, [so] how do we effectively help them and their family?”

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