Texas lawmakers have already convened several times this year to discuss rampant – and persistent -- problems in the state’s foster care system. On Thursday, another hearing at the Capitol took place to look into what can be changed.
Cortney Jones, who spent roughly 10 years in foster care, told lawmakers at the hearing that when foster youths speak about their time in the system, it sounds like they’re referring to time in jail.
Jones wants lawmakers to write legislation that’s aimed at human beings, not just a system.
"I feel that sometimes that gets lost when we’re trying to come up with how to reform the system or make the system better," she says.
She says the Legislature should help change the image of foster care youths so that more people will go through the vetting and training process to become foster parents and take children in.
"We have to build a culture around de-stigmatizing who foster youths are, and painting them in a light," Jones says. "Because I feel like if we do outreach and recruitment and painting kids in a better light, we’ll have more foster parents or more family reunifications."
Judge John Specia, who took over as commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services a year and a half ago, agrees with her.
"I want everybody to open their heart who could take care of a child and who would be willing to help us by opening their home and becoming a foster parent," Specia says. "There are high standards for foster parents, and it’s hard to be a foster parent. But it’s one of the best ways you can help a child in the state of Texas."
In fiscal year 2013, seven children in the state’s care died from abuse or neglect. Earlier this month two foster care youths drowned at Lake Georgetown. Specia says he’s ordered national studies since taking over to learn what Texas can do differently.
"I want to know what best practices are nationally and I want to adopt best practices," he says. "That’s the kind of attitude we’re going forward with."
Roughly 28,000 kids are in the state’s care – 10,000 children are in kinship families, and about 16,000 are in foster care or residential treatment, with about 4,000 children waiting for adoption.
Tyrone Obaseki is an advocate with Texas nonprofit Angel Reach. He spent his entire youth in the system and says he didn’t know how to report physical and sexual abuse.
"I felt as if I was a warehoused animal, I was put on medication and was expected to pull myself by the bootstraps despite the trauma," Obaseki says.
Judge Specia says he meets with foster children when he travels around the state and wants more of them to report abuse by calling the Office of Consumer Affairs. Youths are now also filling out a survey when they exit a foster care home to give a review.