After suffering a childhood of neglect and abuse, many children funneled through the maze of Texas’ foster care system have few options. In a down economy, children often suffer the most. Their parents are sometimes too poor or not equipped to raise a child in a manner the state sees fit.
The numbers of such children are on the rise in Jefferson and Orange counties, up from more than 200 in 2007 to 358 as of November of this year.
Working closely with Child Protective Services (CPS), area foster homes and the courts, one nonprofit is on the front lines of Texas’ war on child neglect and abuse.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Southeast Texas is doing all it can to prevent a life of hardship for Southeast Texas’ kids. Each volunteer attends many hours of training before they are assigned to a child for one year, representing that child’s needs in and out of the courtroom.
“Our judges here in Jefferson County appoint us to every single child that comes in to foster care,” said CASA of Southeast Texas Executive Director Lanis McWilliams.
A testament to their tireless advocacy, although the number of children who are appointed to CASA has gone up, the amount of time older children are spending in permanent foster care has gone down.
“We’ve been able to impact the amount of time that they’re staying in care,” McWilliams said. “In other words, we’ve been able to help reduce that time that they’re staying in care and expedite getting them to permanence, which is our whole mission at CASA — that these children get a safe, permanent home in a timely manner.”
In order to achieve this, CASA works closely with CPS case workers and the courts, said CPS spokesperson Shari Pulliam, who noted CPS has 18 more children in foster care in Jefferson County and almost 40 more kids in Orange County since last year. Although most kids are spending less time in foster care, she said a child’s age and siblings affect how long they are in Texas’ foster care system.
“We find that children that are usually older, who are over the age of 8 or from large sibling groups, usually stay in foster care longer,” she said. “They’re harder to place when they’re that age.”
Pulliam said the downturn in America’s economy marked a shift for many Southeast Texas children into the area’s foster care system. She said most CPS cases involve child neglect.
“When you have financial hardship like a lot of families are facing these days, that’s gonna lead to abuse and neglect,” she said. “When you have parents who are using illegal substances — prescription drugs, bath salts, meth, ya know — you’re going to have children who are neglected, and that’s gonna lead to CPS involvement.”
McWilliams said the public tends to minimize child neglect, seeing it as perhaps a lesser crime than sexual or physical abuse, which is also common.
“Children literally die from neglect. And I don’t think people understand that there’s medical neglect. There’s also neglect where they’re just left alone and exposed,” she said. “We’ve had toddlers that were just left overnight and were found out on the street. Neglect is deadly, and I don’t think people realize just how serious that is.”
To curb the influx of children into foster care, CASA lobbies the Texas Legislature in Austin to institute meaningful reforms that seek to expedite children out of foster care and into a permanent home as quick as possible.
“No child is one size fits all,” McWilliams said. “But if you have to have laws and a system and regulations that address all children, it’s very hard to be responsive to the individual needs of a child, and that’s really what our volunteers do. Because they are doing it on their own time, they’re able to spend as much time as they need with an individual child — and then bring and keep that child’s individual needs before the court and before the CPS agency, (telling) anybody else that needs to know, ‘This is what that child needs.’”
Pulliam said without CASA, children swept into Texas’ foster care system would have little to no options and might not have representation in court.
“We’re making some hard decisions every day on the lives of children,” she said. “We do need all of the good partnerships that we have throughout the community to help raise these kids because we can’t do it alone.”