Commentary: How Legislature is making Texas’ foster care system worse

“Judge, we just want a foster home with people who like kids.”

These are the words I heard last week from two siblings on my foster care docket in Travis County court. The children did not specify what religion, race or sexual orientation their foster family must be; they simply wanted to sleep in a safe, caring home rather than a hotel, state office or cold, institutional setting.

Regrettably, the response by the Department of Family and Protective Services was that right now there is no foster family for them in the entire state of Texas — even after an exhaustive search by DFPS lasting nearly two months.

In this last year alone, the department’s Travis County region had so few foster families that it left 150 children “without placement.” Those children were forced to stay one night or more in hotels or DFPS offices — some for as long as a month.

As a judge who has presided over thousands of children in the department’s care since 2003, I have never seen such a failure by our state and its residents to stand up for kids who come from hard places. It is heartbreaking for me to look into the faces of children who have been abused and neglected by their parents and tell them that although the state has removed them from their homes, we can’t grant their very reasonable request for a safe, stable foster placement in a home with “people who like kids.”

Amid these desperate times, I was appalled when I learned last week that the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 3859, which sanctions discrimination against foster parents and foster children on religious grounds. The bill would allow child-placing agencies to reject qualified LGTBQ couples as foster placements, as well as interfaith couples, single parents, married couples in which one spouse has previously been divorced, or other prospective foster parents to whom the agency has a religious objection.

Further, the bill is especially dangerous for LGTBQ youth, who are known to be overrepresented in the foster care system and extremely vulnerable to discrimination and mistreatment in foster care. This bill could prohibit the state from canceling contracts with agencies that employ harmful and misguided attempts to use religious counseling to “cure” LGTBQ youth of their sexual orientation.

State Rep. James Frank of Wichita Falls has suggested that he believes his bill will allow faith-based organizations to exercise their “sincerely held religious beliefs” when participating as providers in Texas’ child welfare system. He has stated his bill will help faith-based groups remain in business and bolster a diverse network of “as many quality homes as possible.” This is extremely short-sighted. The only possible result of this bill is that it will reduce the already inadequate number of foster homes available.

The religious-freedom rationale offered for this legislation is a dangerous false pretense for state-sponsored discrimination. Just last month, the Nebraska Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex foster parents and compared it to a sign reading “Whites Only” on the hiring room door.

Foster children are all our children. They come in all shapes, sizes, religions, colors, ethnicities and sexual orientations. They desperately need our legislators to protect them and provide support and resources. HB 3859 and a similar measure, Senate Bill 892, give foster kids fewer options, not more.

Please contact your Texas Senate and House members and demand that they fight this abhorrent legislation. Please consider becoming a foster parent or a Court Appointed Special Advocate. Stand up for foster kids and support all options for homes that are safe, compassionate and stable.

Any lawmakers supporting this bill should be ashamed of themselves for attacking our state’s most vulnerable children. State-sponsored discrimination has no rightful place in Texas — especially not in the foster care system.

Byrne presides over the 126th Judicial District Court in Travis County.

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