As COVID-19 Takes its Toll, Remember Kids in Foster Care
By Johnny N. Mata and Andrew C. Brown
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Hispanics particularly hard. The reasons for this range from language barriers to higher rates of comorbidities. Combine this with another disturbing trend—4,200 children in New York alone have lost a parent to COVID-19, putting a quarter of them at risk of going into foster care—and a crisis is becoming clear.
Let’s look at the Lone Star State. Comprising 42 percent of the foster care population in Texas, 21,469 Hispanic children were in foster homes in 2019. That’s more than any other racial or ethnic group. Children who grow up in foster care face higher risks of homelessness, unemployment, low educational attainment, incarceration, and mental health issues. Our communities must take the lead in caring for these children.
The best way to achieve this is to reduce the number of Hispanic children who are separated from their families through robust, community-driven supports for struggling families. For those tragic circumstances in which it is not possible for a child to safely remain with their birth family, more foster and adoptive families of Hispanic origin are needed to fill the gap. Families like the Sandovals (names changed to protect privacy).
The Sandovals attended church with Elijah’s birth mother, who struggled with mental health issues. Even before Elijah was born, it was apparent that his mother would not be able to adequately care for him, so the church helped facilitate his adoption within the congregation to avoid the prospect of him entering foster care. Ultimately, Elijah’s mother chose the Sandovals to be her son’s forever family. Several months later, while the Sandovals were on vacation, Elijah was born five weeks prematurely and was immediately placed into foster care. The Sandovals returned home to participate in a court hearing where the judge approved the placement of Elijah with them. However, the Department of Family and Protective Services delayed and pushed for Elijah to be placed with another family. The Sandovals fought for more than four months, and finally prevailed when the judge called an emergency hearing and ordered the department to place Elijah with them.
The Sandovals’ story is a wonderful example of the difference opening your heart and home can have in the life of a child. Yet, it also underscores the importance of taking the work beyond our neighborhoods to achieve fundamental reform of the entire child welfare system.
Far too many Texas children are forcibly separated from their families by child protective services, and removal disproportionately impacts low-income children. The vast majority of confirmed allegations of child maltreatment are for neglect only rather than for physical or sexual abuse. County-level data shows that a child who lives in conditions of poverty is statistically more likely to enter the Texas foster care system. Entry into foster care should be a tool for protecting children who are in imminent danger of harm and should never be the result of family poverty.
Legal standards governing removal decisions must be reformed by raising the standard of proof CPS must meet before removing a child and requiring proof that removal is the least detrimental alternative available. Additionally, greater focus should be placed on preventing children who are at risk of entering foster care from being removed through community-based services.
In 2017, the Texas Legislature enacted Community-Based Care—a fundamental reform of the state’s foster care system that transferred primary responsibility for foster care services to local private and non-profit charitable organizations based in the regions where children live. While this new model is already generating impressive results in key areas—such as keeping children closer to home so they can maintain critical familial and cultural connections—it is only operating in four regions of the state. When the Legislature reconvenes in January, it should commit to the continued expansion of the Community-Based Care model statewide so that all communities can play a leading role in caring for their children.
Hispanic heritage and family traditions are proud legacies we leave our children with God (church) and family being central, and extends families beyond mother and father to abuelos (grandparents), tatarabuelos (great grandparents), tios (uncles and aunts), primos (cousins), etc. However, we must strengthen our families and care for our children for them to inherit that legacy. For that to happen, foster care reform is a must, regardless of politics.
Johnny N. Mata is the Presiding Officer of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice and the former Texas state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
Andrew C. Brown is a distinguished senior fellow of child and family policy with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.