Foster care agencies from around the Lone Star State met at the Texas Capitol Wednesday for an advocacy day called, “Not Alone Star State." Parents and lawmakers talked about the problems that both foster care agencies and foster care parents face.
"It really encumbers you from being able to be a parent," said foster parent Wilma May as she described the state’s guidelines for foster parents.
Several lawmakers spoke about their efforts this legislative session to create change in the foster care system.
“We’ve also lost our community-based feel. We’re running everything out of Austin as opposed to allowing involvement and decision-making as close to the kid as possible,” said Representative James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) as he described his support for the foster care redesign program.
But perhaps the most impactful part of Wednesday’s gathering was a panel of foster care alumni and current foster parents.
“When everyone is on the same page and you work on behalf of the child, the child benefits,” foster parent May said.
Former foster child Sheila Mayberry talked about the journey of a foster child.
“They do not see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Mayberry said. “The foster parents can see, because, you know, they’re grown. But as a child, you grow up and go through things. You just think that things are not going to be good. But when everybody works together on your behalf, you realize how many more successful children will come from the system.”
Mayberry went into foster care at 4-years-old. She now works in intake for foster kids. She had both good and bad foster home experiences.
“You just never know what you’re going to be dealing with,“ Mayberry said.
She said that some of the best times were when her foster parents got her involved in activities like dance and choir.
Each panelist told the room full of listeners what they feel needs to change within the foster care system.
“We have to communicate with each other, and work with each other, because intake don’t know what the foster parent is going through, and the foster parent doesn't know what the director is going through and the director may not know what the foster child is going through. So just continuing that communication throughout the process, so that everyone is on the same page,” Mayberry said.
Brook Newland, another former foster child, agreed.
“I do think communication is one thing we do really need to work on. When I was in care, I had my lawyer and attorney get me to move back in with my parents. And I was talking to my foster parent and my therapist ... the only way I could get things done is going into chambers with the judge,” Newland said. “There’s very few people who would actually listen and communicate with me.”
The panel moderator asked, “Where do you think the foster care system could improve?”
“Paperwork,” May said.
To that, the room erupted with cheers.
“The things that you have to report -- to me, it has nothing to do with the care of the child. To me, priority should be given to what you do to help heal,” May said.
A foster parent herself, she feels the system should have fewer regulations, but should close the foster homes who violate the ones already in place.
“You’ve entrusted me with this child, and you have to trust that I will make a decision that will benefit the child. And I think good foster homes do do that,” May said.
She said it can be difficult to even allow her foster kids to play with other kids due to background check requirements.
“When a child is placed in your home, you’re expected to raise that child like your child, and give them what you would do for your children. Yet the restrictions are there -- you cannot do that,” May said.
And she feels discipline can be difficult.
“The kids know there’s nothing you can do to them, so if they punch a hole in your wall, 'What are they going to do?' I could get mad … you cannot do anything. And that child will tell you, 'I will tell, and I will have you investigated,'” May said. “You cannot be effective as a foster parent if you do not have foster parents rights.”
May, who also works for Covenant Kids in Arlington, Texas, said she feels those restrictions are actually preventing people from wanting to become a foster parent.
“When you try to recruit foster parents, and you’re honest with them and you tell them what you go through, people don’t want to do that. There are just too many restrictions -- too much paperwork,” May said.
May thinks everyone involved in the case needs to work as a team.
“That one child will have five visitors and this is monthly. You have a therapist, you have a case worker from your agency, a case worker from the state, a CASA, and a guardian ad litem -- and these people infringe on your time. And when they come into your home, they are not a team player. They are coming to tell you what to do, when you are the one who actually lives with the kid,” said May.
May said she has a big support from her church in raising foster children. Scott Lundy, the president and CEO of Arrow Child and Family Ministries, said that support is necessary.
“There’s the saying that it takes a village to raise a child," Lundy, who is also a foster parent, said at the panel. "We heavily relied on our church. We heavily relied on support groups."
He said more Texans need to pitch in and help.
“Texans can’t sit around and see something on the news and go, 'That is horrible.' We have a responsibility to plug in,” Lundy said. “I do think there are many foster parents that don’t know they’re foster parents yet that are out there, and part of what may be holding them back is fear.”
Most at the Advocacy Day agreed that it’s important to connect the lawmakers with those who are involved with the foster care system.
"In the lawmakers eyes, those rules make sense because they are put in place to protect the child, so a foster parent will be like, 'Oh I can't do what I need to do.' So if you just communicate and you all work together, you realize things can actually flow much, much better," Mayberry said.
"Not everyone knows the whole story -- everyone has a piece of it. And with everyone coming together, you can hear the story. You can put the whole story (together) in its totality," May said.
Rep. Frank said they’re working to make the Department of Family and Protective Services its own agency that would report straight to the governor, that would streamline the process for foster parents and that would expand community-based foster care.
“It’s not just me. Really, it’s the House work group to have DFPS, the agency that handles CPS, as a stand-alone agency reporting straight to the governor so that it’s not stuck, if you will, in the bureaucracy of the whole HHSC, which does great work but really in quite a different area than investigating child abuse and foster care,” Frank said. "I use the word streamline innovation. A lot of the things that we're doing aren't really focused on the kids; they're focused, honestly, more on forms over kids. Some of that's the nature of large organizations, but some of it is just losing sight of our purpose.”
Mayberry said she thinks the community-based foster care has two sides.
She feels it can work to allow foster kids to be close to their biological parents for visits.
“If we live in Houston, and we get a child based in San Antonio, and they’re a younger child, they’re going to have family visits. If I’m in Houston, how do I get a Houston foster parent to transport visits to a child that’s in San Antonio?” Mayberry said.
But she also feels the system may not work due to a shortage in foster parents.
“They may not work as well because foster families are scarce. And so we may not have a lot in Harris County that have placements open, but maybe someone in Fort Worth, they may,” Mayberry said.
The panel also discussed human trafficking. Lundy’s organization -- Arrow Child and Family Ministries -- has a foster home and a long term residential treatment center for those who have gone through human trafficking.
“I immediately thought these would be children coming from Central America or outside the U.S., and they said, 'No, no, no, we’re talking about U.S. girls.' And I went, 'What?'” Lundy said.
He said youth in foster care are more susceptible to traffickers than any other population. He feels it’s important to create ways to find those who have been trafficked.
“A young lady nine times out of 10 will not say, 'Oh by the way, I was in a trafficking network.' They’re not going to bring that up,” Lundy said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared the CPS overhaul an “emergency item” this legislative session.
“I think certainly it shows the importance of it and that we get it right,” Abbott said.