The narrative around foster care in Texas usually centers on overloaded caseworkers, traumatized children and a flawed, underfunded state system. However, few of us look in the mirror and wonder what we ourselves can do to improve the lives of Texas children in foster care. I challenge you to think and act differently, starting now.
This Opinion piece originally appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
Upbring, the largest nonprofit foster placement and adoption agency in Texas, believes that as members of a caring community, we all share responsibility in helping to raise healthy children prepared to embrace successful lives.
In Lubbock, there are some wonderful stories of families stepping in to fill a great need. Patricia Moreno’s family has fostered more than 100 children. While many stories stand out, four-year-old Jessie’s is unforgettable. The day he was placed, Patricia’s husband asked if he’d eaten anything. “Yeah, I ate some chicken bones,” he replied. He’d clearly had a hard life to date.
While Jessie was not available for adoption, the Morenos treated him like one of their own. Their son, Eric, became very attached to Jessie, too, and enjoyed taking him fishing. They never caught any fish on these outings, so when Eric found out that Jessie was going to be placed back in his birth home, Eric took him to fish one last time so that he could catch one of his own.
Then there’s Carolyn Gilbert. She became a licensed foster parent in 1996, shepherding more than five-dozen children. When Julie first moved in 1999, they grew a bond. Her time with Carolyn greatly influenced her and today Julie serves in the community as a nurse, owns her own car, and is in the process of buying her first home. Julie still makes time to visit—roses in hand—to express her gratitude to Carolyn.
As locals have long known, Lubbock is home to many generous souls; another tireless volunteer was Lee Ruth Krieg, a faithful friend and Upbring colleague, who died very recently after a valiant battle with cancer. Lee Ruth joined the LSS/Upbring Board of Directors in January 2010. In addition to her five years of service on the board, she was a dedicated volunteer with all of Upbring’s programs in Lubbock, including Neighborhood House, Health for Friends Clinic, and on behalf of our Foster In Texas program. Her energy, tireless spirit, and dedication to Texas children in need will be sorely missed.
We are privileged to work with numerous families throughout Texas like Patricia’s and Carolyn’s. If we intend to fundamentally improve the foster care system, we need more families like theirs, as well as greater participation from every sector of our community. We’re calling on you to help us improve the odds for young Texans in need.
Our mission is to break the cycle of child abuse by empowering children, families and communities. Although it’s an ambitious one, Upbring believes it’s where Texas needs to focus its aim. With more than 13 percent of U.S. children subject to abuse or neglect by a caregiver each year, maltreatment of children is a pervasive problem affecting kids of every age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. As the nation’s second most populous state, Texas faces especially large challenges in the fight against child abuse and neglect.
We know that 30 percent of people who were abused as children become abusers themselves; nearly 70,000 Texas children were confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect last year, most for the first time; also in the Lone Star State in 2014, nearly 18,000 children were removed from their homes; additionally, as the result of a recent study, we now know that over their lifetimes, this abuse and neglect costs the Texas economy an estimated $454 billion.
If we intend to break the cycle of child abuse, we must be comprehensive in our strategy. Kids enter the child welfare system at different stages of their lives and we must address the full spectrum of their needs. To do so, Upbring has established an innovative continuum of services and partnerships tracking progress in five key markers of: safety, life skills, education, health, and vocation.
Currently, there is surprisingly little long-term data on Texas foster children, or what strategies prove successful in serving them. In order to fill this void, Upbring is partnering with The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work on a first-of-its-kind-in-Texas study that will track the progress and wellbeing of foster children. With comprehensive data in hand, we will be better positioned to more consistently care for and meet foster children’s varied needs.
We recognize that we can’t meet those needs alone. Giving vulnerable children the support and opportunities each of them deserves is more than one organization or government can do. That’s why we’re turning to you for additional support.
We need businesses willing to train and employ 18-year-olds as they exit the foster care system; medical institutions eager to partner with us to improve the health of children in foster care; legislators prepared to support the needs of foster children in a complex system; and volunteers passionate about lending their time and skills to a cause bigger than themselves. And of course, we need more Texans like Patricia Moreno and Carolyn Gilbert, whose love and devotion as foster parents has raised expectations for what a childhood can be.
Dr. Kurt Senske is president & CEO of Upbring, formerly Lutheran Social Services of the South (LSS), a faith-based nonprofit organization devoted to breaking the cycle of child abuse. To learn more, participate, volunteer, or contribute visit www.upbring.org or email [email protected].