February 10, 2014

Key kids issues eyed by Legislature

Interim charges indicate foster care, education, juvenile justice to receive attention.

Interim committee charges from House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst suggest that several key issues for Texas kids will be high on the agenda — right where they belong — when the Legislature meets in January.

Leading up to state legislative sessions, the House and Senate leaders give committees their marching orders, directing them to hold hearings to examine crucial issues. These charges can be a good predictor for what legislators will address come the start of the session.

Both chambers will look into foster care reform, starting with a Senate hearing on Feb. 20. The Human Services Committee is getting straight to work after two Central Texas toddlers recently were killed in foster care homes.

The state’s Child Protective Services agency is underfunded. CPS caseworkers at times monitor twice as many endangered children as experts recommend.

And when kids are removed from their biological parents, they are placed in the hands of private contractors who use inconsistent methods to choose and train foster parents.

That Senate committee hearing will also address maternal health. The hearing will consider family planning services as well as medical care during and after pregnancies.

While the previous Legislature boosted women’s health funding, cuts from 2011 tore apart the network of clinics and medical providers.

Increased funding from the 2013 session has been only the first step in repairing a fractured system that was already challenged in meeting demand prior to the 2011 funding cuts. Rebuilding services will give more Texas children a chance to start life in good health and a stable home.

Expect to hear more about the effect of 2011 cuts when the House Appropriations Committee discusses its interim charge on public school funding. The Legislature hasn’t restored the grants it eliminated that year for pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds.

Across the country, Republicans, Democrats, economists, law enforcement officials and business leaders are endorsing expanded pre-k. It’s Texas’ turn to contemplate how to ensure all children start kindergarten ready to succeed.

Debates over high school graduation requirements and standardized testing will continue as legislators on both sides of the Capitol review the sweeping education bill passed last year.

The House Education Committee will study discipline in schools, where misbehavior that once earned children a trip to the principal’s office can now lead to criminal charges. It is one of several House committees that Straus asked to look at juvenile justice issues.

Texas has been a national leader in reforming our adult criminal justice system, but we also lead the nation in the percentage of our children and youth growing up to enter that system.

Now Texas will consider which policies help kids straighten up after a mistake and which ones put them on a path straight to bigger mistakes. The Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will also consider whether we should continue to treat certain children as adult offenders.

Research shows that when youths become involved in the adult system, they are less likely to receive the proper care and rehabilitation they need. We can take a step in the right direction by reducing the number of children entering the adult system.

Whether the issue is foster care, pre-k or other children’s policies, Texas is learning that effective interventions early on actually save the state money down the road and help Texas children reach their full potential.

If we can unify behind the right mix of targeted investments and thoughtful reforms on these issues, we will be able to take a big step forward for our children and our state.

Peter Clark is communications director for Texans Care for Children, an advocacy group formed to help organizations working on behalf of children speak with a unified voice at the Texas Capitol. www.txchildren.org

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