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Child Advocates Hope Foster Care Reform Brings Change

Foster parent Richard de Jesus and his wife have fostered more than 60 children over almost eight years.

Governor Greg Abbott signed several foster care reform bills on May 31 aimed at providing more money and resources for families and caregivers. TPR's Louisa Jonas takes a look at challenges that need to be addressed.

A small girl stands next to the kitchen table at Richard and Yolanda de Jesus’s house. She is four years old. In some ways she acts her age. She likes to color, to be read to, to play with dolls and with other kids, but Richard De Jesus says in many ways their foster child does not act her age.

"She was homeless. She used to panhandle for drugs for the biological parents. She is four years old in age but she is actually 10 to 12 years old in street mentality," he said. "This is a girl that will deceive you big time because of her age and her looks. And she is an innocent child that was taken advantage of by corrupt biological parents that abused her and neglected her."

In almost eight years, the de Jesus’ have fostered more than 60 children. They primarily take in kids who have emotional issues due to abuse and neglect. De Jesus says the behavioral issues have run the gamut from dismantling rooms, biting, cursing, and throwing things at them. 

Credit Louisa Jonas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Anais Miracle, vice president of external affairs for The Children's Center of San Antonio.

Anais Miracle is vice president of external affairs for The Children’s Shelter. She says behavior like this may stem from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or undiagnosed autism. Things may set them off like a piece of clothing, certain smells, a movie or music. She says if they’ve been starved they may hoard food in their backpacks or under their beds.

"When you have experienced chronic abuse and neglect, you are going to suffer from symptoms related to trauma. And you do not want to take in a child you know cannot take care of because of their emotional behaviors. Because it would then disrupt that child’s life again to say, 'Well, nobody wants me.' And then they are going to have to go back into care again and find another home to go into," Miracle explained.

But there aren’t enough qualified foster homes. From September through April, 380 kids slept at CPS offices in Texas because there was nowhere else to send them.

Lawmakers approved additional money for those who take care of children who are difficult to place because of psychiatric problems or special medical care. They also approved financial assistance so more family members, like grandparents, can take of children in their homes.

Erica Banuelos is regional director for Child Protective Services.

"Some of our kids have been in relative placements and the caregivers just don’t have the ability to meet their needs. And so then they do come back with us and then we have to find placement outside of where they were at," she said.

Credit Louisa Jonas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Erica Banuelos, regional director for Child Protective Services.

One thing state lawmakers didn’t adopt was a program to provide a kind of foster parent training touted by Barbara Elias-Perciful, the director of Texas Lawyers for Children. She says a lack of proper training for foster parents is one of the reason there is a shortage of homes.

Elias-Perciful says some adults aren’t prepared to deal with behavioral problems and send the kids back into the system. The law would have provided evidence-based training and Elias-Perciful considers one practice the best.

"It’s an approach to dealing with these children that’s based on a relationship of trust, and ways to develop that relationship of trust," she said. "So that the children feel safe and feel connected to a trusted adult and learn how to regulate their emotions."

Keeping the children in a community they know, instead of shuttling them around the state is one goal of legislation that’s passed. Lawmakers voted to privatize more of the foster care services and give local organizations more responsibility to care for foster children in their communities. 

De Jesus says he had a teenage foster girl with him for a year who was sent to Houston because Child Protective Services couldn’t find a suitable foster home for her in San Antonio.

"Automatically, she knew she was going to be disconnected from her other six siblings. There was nobody who was going to be around to visit her," he remembers. "Her biological father which was still able to have visits with her obviously didn’t have the means to be going over there often to see her."

It’s the kind of scenario caregivers hope to avoid with new reforms and additional resources.    

Louisa Jonas is an independent public radio producer, environmental writer, and radio production teacher based in Baltimore. She is thrilled to have been a PRX STEM Story Project recipient for which she produced a piece about periodical cicadas. Her work includes documentaries about spawning horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds aired on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Louisa previously worked as the podcast producer at WYPR 88.1FM in Baltimore. There she created and produced two documentary podcast series: Natural Maryland and Ascending: Baltimore School for the Arts. The Nature Conservancy selected her documentaries for their podcast Nature Stories. She has also produced for the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Distillations Podcast. Louisa is editor of the book Backyard Carolina: Two Decades of Public Radio Commentary. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her training also includes journalism fellowships from the Science Literacy Project and the Knight Digital Media Center, both in Berkeley, CA. Most recently she received a journalism fellowship through Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where she traveled to Toolik Field Station in Arctic Alaska to study climate change. In addition to her work as an independent producer, she teaches radio production classes at Howard Community College to a great group of budding journalists. She has worked as an environmental educator and canoe instructor but has yet to convince a great blue heron to squawk for her microphone…she remains undeterred.