As a court-appointed attorney and guardian for foster children, I have represented hundreds of Texas children across the State who were removed from homes for abuse or neglect. Almost without exception, my clients want to go home. To them, home is less an address than a feeling. It is knowing that they are loved and feeling like they belong.
What we have been doing in Texas for too long is putting “the system” ahead of better homes for foster children. As this week’s Texas Senate hearing indicated, it’s high-time to prioritize children.
It is ironic that I am considered an expert in foster care, when there is so much about my clients’ experiences that I can never understand. The real experts are the nearly 30,000 children currently in the State’s care and the hundreds of thousands who have survived the system. By their behaviors, they are telling us that we are not meeting their needs; by their outcomes, they are telling us that they leave foster care worse off than when they entered.
Recent federal litigation shed light on a broken and overburdened child welfare system that removes children from the care of their families only for them to suffer abuse and neglect in state care. It is time to finally fix Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) by focusing on the needs of children.
For over a decade, good-hearted Texans have worked diligently to improve the system, with faith that a better system will result in better outcomes for children. The Texas Legislature has invested significant sums to facilitate a bigger system. Unfortunately, all we have proved is that meeting the needs of government and meeting the needs of children are not the same.
Children need to know that they are loved and that they belong. Despite the best intentions of a well-meaning agency and its hardworking staff, no bureaucracy can meet the very human needs of children. Those needs are met in families, not in agency offices.
The most frequent cause of CPS involvement is not abuse but parental unemployment, housing instability, and substance abuse – conditions worsened, rather than solved, by removing children. Oftentimes, at-risk families need minimal, targeted assistance to ensure child safety. Civic, faith, and cultural communities are in the best position to support families through periods of difficulty while keeping children in or near their homes.
Too much government intervention deprives us of the opportunity and the privilege of helping our neighbors. Although the government has an important role to play in protecting children, it is not the village. Children thrive in families, not foster care. The State should reinforce, rather than replace, the instinctive desire to care for children.
Parents should be supported and encouraged to rise to the level of their responsibility. Where children are not safe at home, relatives and community members must stand in the gap. That means engaging and strengthening existing support networks and expanding those networks by connecting need to capacity.
Ultimately, the solution is distributed among the more than 27 million Texans, not concentrated in Austin. It lies in community-centered services to support families, to provide alternatives to removal, and to care for children who cannot remain safely at home. This requires Texans to step up and walk alongside the families in our communities. In the long run, the effort is worth it and provides its own reward in the form of smiling children and strong families.
Logan is director of the Center for Families and Children at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.