Published 2:49 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Senate on Wednesday gave unanimous approval to a bill designed to fix the agency that looks after child welfare and foster kids in Texas. Author Senator Charles Schwertner laid out some of the problems that have arisen within the Department of Family and Protective Services over the last few years “[DFPS] has been under intense scrutiny due to the unfortunate reality that vulnerable children in Texas are going days or even months at a time without seeing a case worker,” he said. “They’re sleeping in CPS offices, and worst of all, too many are experiencing wholly unacceptable abuse and neglect while entrusted to the care of the state.” His plan, SB 11, seeks to address the lack of capacity in the system and overall quality by moving to a community based, non-profit-run model based on a pilot program in North Texas.

Schwertner said the initial foray into using child-welfare focused non-profits as case managers for foster kids has already showed benefits . “The single source continuum contractor in that region is keeping children and youth closer to home, moving children out of residential treatment centers and into therapeutic foster homes, keeping sibling groups together, as well as not allowing children to sleep in office buildings and hotel rooms,” he said. Use of these contractors is intended to streamline and improve services by having a single entity handle the many facets of foster care. It also seeks to keep kids close to home and family. Under the bill, DFPS would develop a system by which providers are selected, monitored and assessed. They’d also set the timeline for implementation.   Schwertner stressed multiple times that the state would still remain the ultimate guardian for kids in the system.

The bill also includes new standards for medical care for foster kids, requiring they receive timely evaluations and examinations. It aims to strengthen investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect at residential centers and foster homes by moving them to the investigations division at Child Protective Services.

Also Wednesday, Houston Senator Sylvia Garcia announced legislation aimed at combating what she calls an epidemic of sexual violence on Texas college campuses. She cited national statistics that one in five women and nearly one in ten men will be a victim of sexual assault during their college careers.   Garcia said that one of the difficulties facing investigations into sexual assault is that the victims are often reluctant to report the crimes. “I firmly believe that the reasons sexual assault is so prevalent is because the culture on many college campuses that leaves victims feeling helpless, alone and often times feeling guilty themselves for allowing the crimes to even happen,” said Garcia. “This is a travesty and we must start treating these crimes for what they are.”

In order to encourage victims to step forward, Garcia has filed SB 962, creating an online reporting system at state universities, which lets victims avoid the uncomfortable and often re-traumatizing process of reporting face-to-face with an official. It also ensures that reporting documents remain the property of the victim, to avoid getting lost in university bureaucracies as well as making it easier to submit those documents to local law enforcement, should the victim choose to do so. “It is my hope that this legislation will empower young women and men to stand up to campus sexual assault, treat it like the crime that it is and send a strong message to potential assailants that sexual assault will no longer be tolerated at Texas universities.”

The Senate will reconvene Monday, March 6 at 2 p.m.