Opinion: Build Back Better can transform lives of millions of Texas children

We can’t talk about the future of Texas without talking about the well-being of our children.

During the last Texas legislative session, policymakers set a vision and passed legislation that will substantially improve outcomes for our youngest children. Now, we have an opportunity to realize the vision and the potential to transform millions of lives to catapult Texas into a future that is healthier, safer and more prosperous for everyone.

The Build Back Better Act, voted out of the House on Nov. 15 and awaiting a vote in the Senate, would provide once-in-a-lifetime funding for early childhood initiatives. Should it pass Congress, it could potentially grant $400 billion in social infrastructure across the nation. Funding allocation and implementation would be determined at the state level, but the figure would be significant enough to dramatically transform childhood wel-lbeing. Texas policymakers face a pivotal moment in history – and they must seize it.

Read the full article at Austin American Statesman.

The critical foster care reforms in Texas are having unintended consequences

Recently, we have been reading about foster children sleeping in Child Protective Services offices as if sleeping in offices is our child welfare crisis. Sleeping in CPS offices is a symptom of the real crisis, which is that today 524 children don’t have foster care placements. This shortage of placements is a symptom of even deeper and more complex challenges that put the entire foster care system, which cares for 30,000 children, at risk of cratering. Many factors have led us to these dire circumstances.

First, the Texas foster care system has been the subject of litigation since 2011, alleging violations of children’s rights. The case is before federal Judge Janice Graham Jack, who ruled that Texas was in fact violating children’s rights in foster care by subjecting them to abuse, overmedication and repeated placements.

The system needed reform, and although well-intentioned, there have been many unintended consequences resulting from Judge Jack’s orders.

For example, additional regulations ordered by the judge have resulted in increased citations for infractions, some minor, with little to no due process. While such citations are meant to improve safety, it has not been transparent as to how providers can remedy such infractions.

These regulations have driven up costs, with the expectation that the state will continue to pick up the ever-increasing tab. Meanwhile, the new regulations have shifted provider attention away from providing quality care, the intent of the lawsuit, to chasing the ever-changing and elusive paper tiger of compliance.

As a result, several providers of poorer quality have been rightfully shut down, but we also are losing much of the existing quality capacity that was insufficient to begin with.

Concurrently, the Texas Legislature is moving ahead with privatizing the foster care system, known as community-based care, in which the state pays regional private entities to administer foster care instead of the state. Given this new environment, entities that receive contracts may not receive sufficient reimbursement to care for children, cover costs and absorb the regulatory risk. We must be prepared in case of failure and question what the alternative will be if the privatization is not successful.

We cannot keep pointing fingers for the situation we are in because of our collective inability to solve the problem. Immediate action is needed.

Read the full article at the Dallas Morning News.

Texas Must Make a Transformative Change in Child Protection and Foster Care

The Texas winter freeze and power outages are once-in-a-lifetime events that qualify as collective trauma for all of us. However, for Texans who were already in need or disproportionately affected by COVID-19, these events are compounding record-high levels of stress.

This crisis reminds us there is a clear and urgent need to put children and their families first this legislative session.

We need to ensure the immediate safety and protection of children who are survivors of child abuse and neglect. While events like the winter storm do not define families already under stressful circumstances, nor lead to child abuse, they do draw attention to the fact that thousands of children and families need our help and support more than ever. And we must work with the legislature on smart solutions to invest in upstream programs that prevent child abuse and neglect and mitigate the negative impact of events like these.

We are encouraged to see Gov. Greg Abbott’s vow to bring the state of Texas into compliance with the longstanding lawsuit against the Texas Foster Care system, recognizing that it is fundamental to ensuring the immediate safety and protection of the nearly 50,000 children who are survivors of child abuse and neglect and come through the state’s foster care doors every year needing help and protection. However, we know the foster care system has caused trauma that is on par, if not more significant, than what initially launched them into foster care.

The governor’s vow is a substantial promise and will require from our legislature this session an investment to the tune of $126 million — significant, yet worth every penny to protect the safety of our children. However, compliance with the lawsuit will not bring about transformational change. It is just the foundation and floor we must build upon.

An investment of $126 million to address the many issues in the lawsuit will not erase the trauma children in the foster care system have suffered. It will not support and protect children and families from reaching critical tipping points caused by unaddressed trauma and stress.

Read the full article at the Dallas Morning News.

The safety of our children is not an either-or-situation

Read the latest op-ed by Sophie Phillips, TexProtects CEO, at the Austin-American Statesman.

“We must consider additional actions we can take to prevent children from experiencing the trauma of abuse altogether. According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, nearly 80 percent of child abuse in Texas is severe neglect often caused by a lack of basic supports or skills, unhealthy coping mechanisms, or underlying mental health challenges, all of which parents and caregivers can be equipped to combat if provided access to needed support. The proven, most effective way to prevent abuse and neglect is to invest in community-driven prevention programs that get to root causes.”

OP-ED: Healthy Childhoods One of Many Ways to Prevent Violence

This op-ed was published in the Houston Chronicle, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Longview News-Journal and Alice Echo News-Journal.

By Sophie Phillips, TexProtects CEO

Yet again, more mass shootings have our nation desperately searching for answers to difficult questions. How could they have been prevented? Some question whether prevention is within our reach.

            This question sparks debate around issues such as the proliferation of guns in America, hateful political ideologies, violence in video games and movies, and mental health issues (further stigmatizing it), among many others.

            Negative rhetoric is the matchstick sparking the combustion of destruction and prevents us from finding true solutions, including one I believe we have not brought into the fold: evidence-based prevention and early intervention programs in childhood that support families and build resiliency in children.

            Science tells us there are commonalities behind the violent acts devastating our country beyond those currently debated.

            In an August 4 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, researchers Jillian Peterson and James Densley of The Violence Project studied every mass shooter in the past 53 years and identified four commonalities, the first of which caught my eye.

            Peterson and Densley wrote, “the vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age.”

Certainly, neither I nor Peterson and Densley suggest that children who experience severe trauma are destined to become mass shooters or otherwise engage in violent behavior.

However, exposure to multiple, prolonged, severe, and compounded events – including child abuse and neglect, living in a household with intimate partner violence, parental substance abuse, untreated mental health concerns, loss of a parent, bullying and more – have been identified in research as precursors to serious social, mental, and physical health problems later in life such as depression, suicide, substance abuse, and others if left untreated or without effective coping mechanisms.

One might be surprised at the large percentage of children that experience trauma. National research firm Child Trends analyzed data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health and found that while 49% of Texas children have experienced at least one early adversity, 12% (nearly 900,000) experienced three or more, excluding child abuse (but including being a victim of violence), making the likely impact much more severe.

The solutions aren’t necessarily difficult. Research has shown just one loving adult in a child’s life can buffer trauma’s impact.

Additionally, programs and interventions exist that work with families to not only prevent traumas but also mitigate the effects. These include voluntary home visiting programs, high quality childcare, parenting training and support, access to quality healthcare, treatment of mental health and substance abuse concerns, and domestic violence prevention.

            Let me be clear: this is not about labeling children or flagging potential shooters because of early trauma or mental health concerns. 

            Rather, it’s an effort to invest in our most precious generation, when children’s brains experience the most development. Every child deserves to be strong, safe and secure. By investing in prevention, we create a foundation in which children are resilient and have supports in place to build healthy lives.

            The organization I lead – TexProtects, the Texas chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America – worked hard in the most recent Legislative Session educating lawmakers on the detrimental effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Along with other advocacy partners, we pushed for development of a statewide strategy to prevent and mitigate ACEs impacts by building resiliency in kids. Unfortunately, despite strong House support, the legislation died in the Senate in the final days of session.

            I don’t know what the perfect solution is to preventing violence in our nation – there probably isn’t one, as any individual violent event can be pinned to multiple causes. However, I do know that the earlier we intervene the better, and prevention of early childhood trauma and treatment later in life should be two of many strategies.

            Prevention is absolutely within our means to address and childhood is the earliest point possible.

Sophie Phillips is CEO of TexProtects. TexProtects’ study of Adverse Childhood Experiences is at bit.ly/acesuncovered.

Op-Ed: Mistreatment of migrant children by our government is intolerable

This op-ed was distributed to and published by newspapers statewide in Texas, including the Dallas Morning News, Longview News-Journal and Stephenville Empire-Tribune. Permission to reprint is freely granted under these conditions:

  • The text may not be edited in any way.
  • Authorship must be properly credited.
  • Online reprints must link back to this blog post; paper reprints must mention our websites (texprotects.org and texprotects.blog)
  • It may not be reprinted on any website or other forum that is contrary to TexProtects’ mission of child protection or that promotes illegal activity.

Photo from dallasnews.com

By Sophie Phillips, CEO, TexProtects

In the past 12 months, despite an executive order to end the policy allowing the separation of migrant children from their parents, followed by a judicial order to reunify those families, our government has continued to separate and traumatize children.

One might ask how this tragedy continues to occur – you could be forgiven for thinking both orders would have ended the matter. However, that is not the situation we find ourselves in, and certainly not the situation the 5,700 children in Texas shelters are in.

There were loopholes in the court’s decision: children could still be separated from parents with criminal histories, or considered dangerous to the child, or if they suffered communicable diseases.

All seemingly reasonable stipulations, except that advocacy groups who are face to face with these families are reporting the government is inappropriately exploiting those loopholes – reducing the orders to ineffective words on paper. Examples include children taken away from a parent for violations such as driving with an expired license or experiencing a brief hospitalization. They can also be separated from other relatives such as siblings or grandparents. We would never tolerate such flimsy pretenses for taking away children from U.S. citizens.

This result has been more than 700 immigrant families separated after the policy supposedly ended.

The organization I lead – TexProtects, the Texas chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America – makes no claim to immigration policy expertise. We’ll leave the crafting of immigration solutions to those who do.

Instead, our expertise is in children and policy that impacts them – specifically, how to keep children safe from trauma. And make no mistake – being separated from a parent, regardless of the situation, is itself an extreme trauma.

TexProtects fights tirelessly to make families stronger and more resilient, helping prevent crises that lead to child removal. Putting children in foster care must be the measure of last resort – all options for keeping a child safely with his or her parents must be explored before taking the extreme measure of separation.

We’ve worked to embed this philosophy within our government, gaining lawmakers’ support for prevention programs and strengthening family preservation services.

That’s why the current policy is unthinkable. We are witnessing the government, rather than protecting children from harm, actually inflicting trauma upon children as an instrument of policy.

The trauma goes beyond taking children away from parents, which is painful enough. Recent news reports have exposed children, including toddlers, being warehoused in horrific and dangerously unsanitary conditions.

This will not be a minor event in these children’s lives. During the Texas Legislative Session, TexProtects educated lawmakers across the state on the consequences of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) – severe events such as mental illness, violence or substance use within the home, an incarcerated caregiver, or abuse or neglect.

In our ACEs Uncovered report earlier this year (http://bit.ly/acesuncovered), we outlined long-term consequences that can result from such experiences.

Research has shown that left untreated, people who suffered multiple adverse childhood experiences had, in adulthood, higher rates of disease, disabilities, social and mental health problems including suicides and suicide attempts, depression, a high number of sexual partners, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, smoking, substance abuse, and early death.

Now, we – through our government – are creating more children who, assuming they survive this ordeal, could grow up with such health consequences.

As said, TexProtects will “stay in our lane” on immigration and refugee policy and refrain from suggesting what actions should be taken.

However, we have a moral imperative to rule out what action should not be taken: willfully traumatizing children absolutely cannot be an option.

Even if the policy produced the president’s desired result of fewer border crossings (it has not, as detentions and migrant deaths have surged again), hurting children would still be unacceptable.

Americans are outraged when parents abuse or neglect children. We must be equally outraged when our government does the same.