OP-ED: Texas can act now to reduce number of kids sleeping in offices

Published 3:02 pm Tuesday, April 20, 2021

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Katie Olse
Chief Executive Officer of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services

The number of children in the state’s foster care who had to sleep in state office has been on the increase, up to 186 in February. This statistic is not only alarming, but also represents a call to action: It underscores the need for state investments in community-based services for children and youth who have suffered from the trauma of to abuse and neglect.

With less than seven weeks left in this year’s session of the Texas Legislature, there are steps legislators can take — and time to take them. In fact, legislators have an opportunity to make targeted investments and strategic decisions that could do much more than the critical work of reducing the number of kids sleeping in offices. Our legislators can make a profound difference for some of the state’s most vulnerable children and families — many of whom have experienced severe and compounding trauma — by reinforcing services for them before and after a crisis hits in their home.

Children sleeping in office buildings results from a shortage of available placements in the state’s foster care system. Due to rising costs and the increased complexity of providing care and services, foster care providers have struggled to find homes for kids, particularly those with more complex needs, often due to the trauma of the abuse or neglect they have experienced. The system is further strained as organizations face a growing burden of duplicative and compounding administrative requirements that take time and energy away from their true mission. Meanwhile, kids who are in care are lingering in the system for longer periods of time.

The pandemic has made the squeeze on foster care capacity worse. Child- and youth-serving organizations have struggled to maintain the staff needed to provide around-the-clock, in-person care. Some foster families have chosen not to open their homes at a time when we need them more than ever.

The shortage of foster-care beds is an urgent symptom of a broader challenge facing legislators: The need to provide a continuum of services for vulnerable children, youth and families. If legislators rise to this challenge, they can grow capacity and alleviate the need for kids sleeping in office buildings. They can also strengthen the state’s safety net for traumatized youth to provide better outcomes and gets kids in homes faster.

Organizations on the front lines of working with these vulnerable Texans ask that legislators:

  • Invest in prevention and family preservation services to stop crises related to mental health, substance use or domestic violence. These investments can help keep families together so foster care — or sleeping in a state office building — never becomes necessary.
  • Fund the full cost of foster care and fund incentives for organizations to build foster home capacity and improve the quality of care and services.
  • Update the rates that determine payments to foster care organizations and families so that those rates reflect the true cost of providing services to kids who have often experienced trauma and have severe needs.
  • Support services for children and families after children have been adopted. Too often, kids who move from foster care to adoption end up back in foster care.
  • Appropriately fund continued implementation of community-based care, a new and proven approach to care that pulls resources into a community, rather than a central headquarters in Austin, to meet children’s complex needs.

The state can meet some of these needs by effectively leveraging federal resources, including considerable dollars available to Texas through COVID-19 relief legislation that was signed into law in December and through the most recent stimulus package, which includes support for children, families, and community services.

We all know kids should not be sleeping in offices or staying in foster care for years at a time. A state like Texas values our children far too much for this to happen under our watch. Fortunately, the Legislature can take real steps now to provide these vulnerable kids, and others, the care they need.

Katie Olse is the CEO of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, a network of mission-driven organizations serving children and families in Texas’ foster care and child welfare systems.