Protecting Children Should Be Priority One for Texas

Written by LIFT Alliance

by Kelly White, CEO, Austin Children’s Shelter
Tuesday, April 2

This editorial originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

“This is the only place anyone has ever been nice to me. It’s the place I felt safe.” These were the words of the young girl I found waiting outside the door of the Austin Children’s Shelter early on a chilly February morning. Tired, dirty, cold and hungry, between sobs she kept repeating: “It’s my fault. I left. I didn’t know.” Now 19 years old, she was terrified that she would be turned away, but she wasn’t. Simple human decency demanded that we find a place — and the funding — for her.

This young girl is one of the thousands of young people in Texas who have aged out of the foster care system; one of those who, at age 18, opted to leave the system to make it on her own.

In 2012, there were 16,697 children in foster care in Texas. These are children who have been rescued from unsafe, often abusive homes, and given shelter, treatment and care by the state of Texas, which assumes parental responsibility for each child. What can possibly be a higher priority than paying for the care and safety of these children that look to the state as their parental authority? While 91 percent of the children in the foster system are cared for by private organizations — mostly nonprofits like the Austin Children’s Shelter — the average rate of reimbursement has decreased from 90 percent of cost in 2003 to 73 percent in 2012, in large part because of unfunded requirements and insufficient rate increases.

The state mandates staff trainings, child-staff ratios, background checks, how to dispense medications, transportation, documentation, health care and all the other critical services everyone hopes to provide for their children. But rarely has any funding been associated with the increase in regulation. At the Austin Children’s Shelter, the state reimbursement only makes up 30 percent of the cost to provide quality care and support for a child. It is a percentage we have seen shrink dramatically over the past decade as the number of kids in care and their level of need has increased. The balance is made up by donations from the community.

And what of the young girl that waited at the door — every young person deserves a place to return to as “home.” A place they can feel safe and welcomed regardless of funding and rules.

The under-funding of foster care rates by the state of Texas directly impacts the safety of children that have already endured unimaginable abuse and neglect. These funds provide for supervision, screening and the training necessary to keep kids safe while in care. The mandates and requirement will remain in place and likely continue to increase. The state recognizes its responsibility for regulating these services, but it is time for our elected officials to also recognize the state’s responsibility for funding these services for our most vulnerable citizens.

The Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, our statewide association, is calling for a 14 percent across-the-board foster care rate increase. This is the minimum amount needed to protect the foster care safety net for the children now in the Texas foster care system. These funds would be used to support: 1) Children in foster homes — individual home placements for children; 2) residential treatment centers for children with severe emotional needs who require 24-hour supervision in a secure residential setting; 3) basic residential services in a cottage or campus type setting; and 4) emergency shelter to children for stays of less than 90 days. How wonderful if the community dollars we receive could be used to provide the additional familial supports and extras needed by young people, rather than to meet the unfunded mandates required by the state.

Tell your legislators it is time to step up in support of Texas’ abused and neglected children. Central Texas citizens are certainly doing their part – providing 70 percent of the funding that supports the work of the Austin Children’s Shelter. But it has been years since the staff have had a raise, sometimes we have had to limit the number of children we can take because of the acuity level of the children in care, and we must also be able to respond when a young woman shows up at our door asking if she can come “home,” even when we know there will be no associated reimbursement.

This young woman is doing well. She came into my office this morning to thank me. She was a very different person from the one I met on that cold morning. She left me with a note saying, “Man ACS, thank you so much for my home.”