Texas lawmakers did a good job protecting kids

Photo by Jennifer Whitney for The Texas Tribune

As the special session unfolds, it’s gratifying to know that legislators heeded Gov. Greg Abbott’s guidance and spent the regular session doing the heavy lifting related to protecting vulnerable Texas children.

It was no small task: the Texas child welfare system is incredibly complex, meshing public and private resources into a safety net that events of the past few years have shown to be riddled with dangerous holes. The 85th Texas Legislature leveraged a key resource in closing these gaps by further investing in children’s advocacy centers (CACs).

In 1995, the Legislature officially adopted the CAC model as the best-practice approach to investigating sexual and physical abuse of children and providing recovery services to the victims. The Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas (CACTX) was created to serve as a statewide association to provide guidance, training, advocacy and support for all Texas CACs. At CACs across the state, law enforcement, prosecutors, Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworkers and medical professionals take their seats at the table with CAC forensic interviewers and therapists to intervene, investigate and prosecute these cases. Through close collaboration, they work towards a shared objective: to provide justice and healing. The model’s success is driven by their shared commitment  to a coordinated, child-focused approach proven to reduce re-victimization.

In the 22 years since it was formally adopted in Texas, the CAC model has spread across the state, growing in size, scope and influence. Today, 70 centers reaching into most Texas counties blend the efforts of some 1,000 CAC child-abuse professionals with the support of countless community volunteers and donors to stem the tide of abuse. Representing the private side of the CAC public-private partnership model, these supporters provide an incredible breadth and depth of resources, giving time, money and ongoing encouragement for our centers, their investigatory partners, and most importantly, the children they serve. CACs have emerged as the connective tissue of our state’s child-welfare safety net, providing a true force-multiplier for all involved.

With that in mind, the Legislature took specific steps to bolster the child welfare system in Texas by strengthening and improving the CAC model. They include:

  • Senate Bill 1806, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, which requires child sexual-abuse cases reported by professionals (e.g., doctors, teachers, counselors, day care workers) and those involving child fatalities with surviving children in the home to be addressed with a CAC-facilitated joint investigation with CPS and law enforcement. While many of these cases already benefit from CAC involvement, this bill emphasizes the critical importance of CAC-facilitated joint investigations, and reinforces CACs as a best practice approach to child abuse investigations. In terms of that child welfare safety net, Senate Bill 1806 shrinks the gaps into which some children had fallen.
  • Legislators from both chambers collaborated on a package of bills including S.B. 11 (Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown), House Bill 249 (Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston), and H.B. 5 (Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls) that consolidates and standardizes child abuse and neglect investigations under CPS oversight. Regardless of where alleged abuse occurs, this legislation ensures every child will receive the same type and quality of investigation. Enabling cases of abuse in foster-care homes or residential treatment centers to more seamlessly reach the pipeline of services provided by CACs is of the utmost importance.

As these legislative changes take effect, it is likely there will be more investigations of child abuse. This might alarm observers, but increasing numbers will signify that things are getting better, because fewer children will be falling through the cracks. Fortunately, CACs are built to scale as they help CPS and law enforcement partners handle increases brought on by an improved system, a growing state population and more children with the courage to report abuse. Thanks to our visionary governor, pragmatic legislators at the state and federal level and the support of private-sector partners across the state, we can keep making a difference in the lives of countless children who would otherwise cope with abuse in isolation.

With proven resources like CACs, the commitment of our elected leaders, and the momentum of public awareness, I am confident that Texas can emerge as the nation’s leader in securing justice and healing for abused children.

Joy Rauls

CEO, Children's Advocacy Centers of Texas