As Texas lawmakers dig into their second week of the legislative session, Sen. Carlos Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat, is hoping Gov. Greg Abbott will make Child Protective Services and foster care an emergency item. That would allow lawmakers to immediately pass legislation to better protect children.
Uresti has served 20 years in the legislature. He recently sat down with Texas Public Radio’s Shelley Kofler to talk about why child welfare is once again his top priority.
When you ask Sen. Uresti about his long slog at improving child abuse programs, he almost always begins by telling the story of Jovonie Ochoa. The 4-year old San Antonio boy was starved to death. He weighed just 16 pounds when officials found him in December 2003.
“He was tied up to a bunk bed by his grandmother. He died on Christmas day 13 years ago. It got my attention, and it got the attention of this whole community."
Since then, during every session, Uresti has pushed for laws and funding to help struggling families better care for their children and to ensure children removed from abusive homes are placed in safe, stable settings.
More Caseworkers With Higher Salaries
Increasing pay for child protective services caseworkers and increasing their numbers have been high priorities for Uresti. In some counties more than half the caseworkers leave every year.
Uresti says a recent decision by the state’s family and protective services commissioner to increase caseworker salaries should help. The average caseworker has earned about $35,000 a year. The increase raises salaries by $12,000 to $13,000 a year.
Uresti says state lawmakers must now put enough money in the next two-year budget to keep the pay increase in place. He believes there’s a strong financial case for doing that.
“We were losing $83 million a year in training based on that turnover rate. They were leaving at about 1,500 a year. The pay raise we give will be far less than that $83 million, so it just makes sense.”
Financial Assistance For Family Caregivers
Uresti will also be urging lawmakers this session to provide financial assistance to relatives who are able to care for children removed from abusive homes, but the relatives can’t take on the financial burden.
“If grandma is on a fixed income, Social Security for example, she loves those grandkids, but it’s hard to buy new clothes and shoes,” Uresti explained.
Uresti says providing a stipend to relatives is less expensive than foster care, and minimizes the trauma children often experience when being placed with strangers.
A Federal Court Ruling
A federal judge has said Texas’ foster care system is “broken” and “unconstitutional.” U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi has lambasted the state for a lack of caseworkers, and for housing abused children in state offices, or placing them in homes where they are mistreated again. The state has challenged those findings, and may appeal the judge’s final ruling expected sometime this year.
Uresti hopes lawmakers won’t wait for a final court order before they approve measures to correct the underfunded system. He says every day more Texas children are abused or neglected, and they need help now.