This story is part of a series examining Texas foster care. It looks at who’s involved and affected by what has been deemed a “broken” system.
One of the biggest issues confronting Texas lawmakers this legislative session is improving the state’s foster care system. At the Texas Standard, we’ve been hearing from different stakeholders, getting their views on what’s wrong and how to fix it. Last time around, we heard from Will Francis. He’s the government relations director for the National Association of Social Workers, Texas Chapter and a former CPS caseworker.
Francis says we’ve moved away from the idea that CPS gets involved in families’ lives because they need help. Instead, it’s more “Hey, you did something wrong, let’s look at it from a punitive standpoint, let’s come at it from a law enforcement standpoint,” he says.
That just didn’t sit right with him.
“I think we needed to be back looking at CPS and child welfare as a truly social work arena,” Francis says. “which is you have a lack of knowledge – we need to get you help, we need to empower you to get to a place where you’re ready to be the best parent you can possibly be. And then from the kids’ side, we need to tell you all and give you all the support you need to grow and be successful in your own way.”
One parent’s advocate’s motto is “If you help a parent, you help a child.”
Johana Scot first started thinking about parents rights when volunteering for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a child advocacy organization. Her job was to ensure the child protection system met kids’ best interests.
Her first case involved a mother with a drug problem.
“The mom had been cooking meth in her kitchen and also was partaking of the substance as well,” Scot says. “She showed up to the meeting in Daisy Duke cut-off shorts, she had a tank top with everything falling out – and this is to meet with CPS and attorneys and everyone in charge of her life now.”
Scot says they were trying to get the mom into a substance abuse program. She agreed, as long as she could find a place to store four boxes – a request Scot says drew criticism from other folks at the table. So Scot asked, what’s in them?
“You know what was in the boxes? It was pictures of her kids,” Scot says. “It was the first teddy bear the babies got at the hospital, it was the certificate from preschool and kindergarten, and it was all those items that if she never got her kids back again, that’s the only remnant of her children that she would have. So yeah, it really mattered to her and she deserved to have it matter to her.”
The experience inspired Scot and her twin sister to launch the nonprofit Parent Guidance Center in 2004. They offered parenting classes and got some computers to help parents stay on top of their cases. But Scot quickly realized what parents really needed was a good lawyer.
“Parents would sit there in these court hearings unrepresented and I thought, is this America? How are parents in this situation,” Scot says. “Even if it’s civil it’s still so crucial because they’re about to lose their children but nobody seems to be telling them what their legal rights are or helping them.”
But why should you care about a parents rights if they’re hurting a child? Well, Scot says, it’s not always so clear.
“We’ve had homeless moms that, instead of helping them have a home, [CPS] take their kids,” Scot says. “Moms that have those neglectful supervisions – they don’t have a good babysitter – so they end up leaving these children often with people that aren’t equipped for this.”
These parents had their kids removed due to neglect rather than physical or sexual abuse.
“Neglect has to do with poverty,” Scot says. “If you don’t pay for the prevention services when the caseworker is standing on the porch, they’re not going to be left with any choice but to take a child. Because they know there is no service to fix the problem that they’re seeing in that moment.”
And no matter the circumstances, removal is traumatic. State Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) was a foster parent. He’s now the author of House Bill 6, which seeks to revamp the state’s foster care system.
“The reality is that if we – as a state – pull a kid out of a house, we know we are creating trauma. We know that’s a bad thing,” Frank says. “Now, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to do that sometimes but we need to understand there is trauma and risk that we are creating pulling them out. So we need to be extremely careful. … It’s not specifically in this bill but it is something that’s being looked at and fine-tuned this session.”
When CPS does remove a kid from their parents’ care, at some point the parent, or parents, have to go to court and get a service plan. This plan has all the steps they need to take to regain custody. If a parent doesn’t check those boxes – whether they just don’t want to or face some challenge, like no transportation – their parental rights can be terminated. Scot’s made her number one goal helping the parents she works with get good legal representation.
Lawmakers have taken note too and introduced several bills that would bolster parents rights. But child advocates like Kate Murphy, with the advocacy organization Texans Care for Children, want to make sure that a parent’s gain isn’t a kids loss.
“I think it’s a really tricky balance to strike,” Murphy says. “I think the best interest of this child has to stay paramount. And I think that that’s what we look for when there are bills about parent’s rights – is whether there’s anything in a bill that’s going to make it harder to keep that child safe, whether it’s at home with their parents or whether removal is going to be necessary.”
But for Scot, the ultimate fix to the foster care system is more investment in prevention, so fewer kids have to go into it in the first place.