Better temporary care for foster children in Texas

Photo by Todd Wiseman

"They aren't here; walk with me and I'll explain," an administrator told me as I walked in to an elementary school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. About six months earlier my wife and I had been contacted by a school in our community who asked us to start tutoring a set of twins, one boy and one girl, once a week. We had been called upon as fellow members of the community by the school to assist, and we enjoyed working with these twins. On that day, I was shocked to learn that the twins were not at school. Then we were informed that they had be placed into Child Protective Services care, and we were not needed to tutor that day.

This spurred me to start asking questions. How could we help? Where were these kids sent? We have an ongoing relationship with these kids, so why were we not called?

After the dust settled, we learned that the children were separated and sent to foster homes miles apart from each other. Worse, they had to take the S.T.A.A.R. test at a new school that next school day! The children were returned to their home after about two weeks, and the family is doing quite well. However, that two-week period bothered us.

Uprooting children for such a short stint could have been prevented if my wife and I were called. We would have instantly volunteered our home to keep the children and ensure they could stay at their school. Having the familiar support of the same school, could have been a huge relief to these kids. Their home may have been experiencing turmoil, but having continued structure could have helped.

In March 2017, the number of children who had to sleep in Child Protective Services offices or in other temporary living arrangements had doubled from February. The Dallas Morning News noted that "for the first seven months of fiscal year, 314 children were kept in this temporary housing, up from 305 in the entire last fiscal year." That is unacceptable.

Another story worth noting is based out of Houston, where two teens were hit by a car while fleeing a Child Protective Services (CPS) office where they were staying. Unfortunately, one of the girls passed away, and the other was injured. It is unclear why they fled the CPS office. Nevertheless, this is a horrible incident that the state has a duty to respond to.

There are not enough tools available to aid these children. In response to this, our office has filed House Bill 1620, which we call FOSTEL. It is a mix of youth hostel and foster care. This program would allow the Department of Family and Protective Services to establish a voluntary temporary caregiver program.

With HB 1620, the department would be able to gather a list of voluntary temporary caregivers who meet set regulatory standards. A background and criminal history record check of each caregiver would be required along with other basic standards to ensure children's safety.

These caregivers are volunteers from the community who agree to house and care for these children for two weeks maximum. The intent of this bill is to prevent children from having to move across the state to find suitable foster care or from having to sleep in CPS offices. Keeping children in their existing communities will bolster security and reduce the stress of being taken from their home. By becoming temporary caregivers, community members could test the waters before becoming foster parents and simultaneously expand the pool that CPS can use for placements.

Like so many times before, communities and churches are ready to assist in this crisis. They are begging for the tools to do so. HB 1620 is a solution that comes from reading countless tales of Texas children left behind in the system, a personal experience, and a willingness to protect the most vulnerable. If Texas will allow this bill to become law, we can begin to solve this issue.

Scott Sanford

State representative