Other Voices

Court decision shows Texas needs stronger safety net for foster children

John Specia Jr., a former state district judge in San Antonio, is commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
John Specia Jr., a former state district judge in San Antonio, is commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Star-Telegram

As a state judge who oversees the child welfare cases in Travis County, I was saddened but not shocked by U.S. District Judge Janis Jack’s Dec. 17 ruling against Texas’ foster care system.

In Jack’s opinion, the system has violated certain constitutional rights of children, including “the right to be reasonably safe from harm while in government custody and the right to receive the most appropriate care, treatment, and services.”

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is the safety net of last resort for children in our state who have been abused or neglected by their parents or other caregivers. In these cases, state judges may have no choice but to designate the state as the child’s legal parent.

This federal court decision reminds us that the state is not a very good parent.

Every child deserves safety, permanency and loving care, but can we expect as much from any state agency, let alone one that is stretched so thin and faces so many obstacles in its efforts to care for more than 30,000 children?

A broad-brush indictment of the entire system seems too simplistic. It may be much easier to criticize the failings of the agency in hindsight than it is to prescribe a path for future success.

Almost every day, I see caring, courageous caseworkers and supervisors who do not get paid enough for the amazing efforts they make for children and families.

I know that many passionate individuals at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services dedicate countless hours to the daunting task of acting as temporary legal parents.

At the same time, they must work under statutorily imposed deadlines to assist parents in completing a service plan and ultimately help guide each child toward an outcome that is safe, permanent and appropriate for that child.

Our state needs a better, larger community safety net that is strong and reliable.

We need good, accessible mental health services for children and their parents, quality drug treatment, schools that provide the educational support children and families need, affordable housing, a robust and diverse transportation system and quality nutritious food.

We need more advocates, such as the CASA volunteers who dedicate their time and speak up in court to provide a voice for abused and neglected children.

We need more foster parents who are willing to open their homes and their hearts to a child in a loving manner so that the child’s parents can get back on their feet.

Without a broad range of support and an adequate supply of caring individuals and holistic services, our safety net will continue to be stretched too thin — and regrettably, sometimes break.

I hope that the court-ordered reforms arising from the decision will make a positive difference for our state’s most vulnerable children.

Darlene Byrne, judge of the 126th District Court in Travis County since 2001, is president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.