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November 21st

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Op-Ed: Austinites, here’s what you can do to help break the cycle of child abuse and neglect

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By Kurt Senske, special to the Austin-American Statesman

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.

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.

Take for instance Carmen Todd of Austin. Carmen—who had been raised in the foster system—had wanted to become a foster parent for several years, however the timing was never quite right. But she always knew she wanted to give back. Carmen remembers being shuffled around and feeling isolated during her difficult childhood, and so long ago, she committed in her mind and heart to providing a loving home—and plenty of stability for children in need. Earlier this year, she followed through on that commitment.

Within a few days of becoming a licensed foster parent, Carmen accepted a placement for an HIV-positive teenage boy. He immediately became part of the family (moving in with Carmen and her biological son and daughter). During a visit with a Family Support Worker (FSW), Carmen told her, “She loves Sammy and is so excited to have him.” She said this in front of Sammy and he just beamed. Carmen, as a single foster parent, has been able to nurture his self-confidence and they’ve quickly developed a strong bond.

Shortly after taking in, a call came regarding a teenage girl who was desperately in need of a stable home life. Once again, Carmen opened her home and welcomed Claire into the family. This foster daughter is also a teenage mom, whose daughter has been placed in another Upbring home. Carmen has been instrumental in setting up visits between Claire and her young daughter.

After opening her home and heart to Sammy and Claire, Kevin—another teenage boy in need—joined Carmen’s growing family. When asked about her foster children, she says, “Oh my goodness I love them so much! Recently, Claire was telling me how blessed she felt to ‘get me’ and I cried like a baby. Honestly, this is the most humbling and rewarding thing I’ve ever done…and I could not be happier.”

Remarkably, the story gets better—when Carmen discovered that Sammy had a biological brother placed in a children’s home in Houston, she decided to increase her foster care license so she could also take placement of Sammy’s brother. And while she loves fostering these children, Carmen wants to take her commitment even further by potentially adopting them, as well.

In the future, Carmen hopes to be able to purchase a larger house and have another adult family member move in; she wants to make become licensed to operate a group home.

We are privileged to work with many devoted individuals throughout Texas such as Carmen Todd. If we intend to fundamentally improve the foster care system, we need more people like her, as well as greater participation from every sector of our community. Austin, 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. 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. Upbring recognizes the importance of improving the wellbeing of and long-term prospects for children, youth, and families across our great state.

As a mid-September KEYE news story—featuring Carmen’s work—about Austin’s foster home shortage made very clear, we need more qualified volunteers to take up this important cause. With roughly 1,700 children in Austin in need of foster homes, but only 750 foster families in the region who are actively fostering, there is a looming crisis.

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—and we’ll be better prepared to help these children as they age out of foster care.

We recognize that we can’t meet those needs alone. Giving vulnerable children the support and opportunities each one 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 Austinites like Carmen Todd, whose love and devotion as a foster parent has raised expectations for what a childhood can be.

Dr. Kurt Senske is President & CEO of Upbring, the new Lutheran Social Services of the South, a faith-based nonprofit organization devoted to breaking the cycle of child abuse. Join us. Please visit Upbring.org or email info@upbring.org to learn more.

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