Effort to keep at-risk children with parents gets tentative House OK


Highlights

House Bill 7, 31-pages long, would protect parents in certain situations from having their children removed.

Children removed from their homes have increased over the last eight years.

The state does not have enough foster homes for children.

As the state grapples with finding enough foster care homes, the Texas House passed a bill on Tuesday that would keep with their parents children at risk of entering foster care.

House Bill 7, filed by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, would among several other provisions, bar a court from taking children away from parents on the grounds that they home schooled their children, were economically disadvantaged, had reasonably disciplined their children or had been charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor.

“What remains in this bill is what we believe will help the system respond better to child abuse and neglect,” Wu said of his 31-page bill on Monday during second reading of the bill. “This is what we think will do a better job of preserving families, this is what we think will do a better job in having children return to their families, if at all possible.”

Under the bill, a case against a parent can also be dropped if the court hasn’t made a ruling within a year.

Other provisions of the bill include requiring the state to notify child welfare stakeholders if a foster child moves homes, and the court to review a foster child’s placement at every hearing and get a doctor’s evaluation before ordering medical treatment of a foster child.

Other House members tacked on three dozen amendments to Wu’s bill, including one that would allow an attorney assigned to represent the interests of the foster child to know the child better.

The debate became heated on Monday when Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, added an amendment that would also bar removal of a child if the parent chooses not to vaccinate him or her. Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, and other members argued that the amendment wasn’t necessary because the law protects parents who choose not to vaccinate and suggested not vaccinating children endangered them. Leach responded that he wanted government to butt out of such family decisions.

The number of children the state has removed from their parents has grown over the last eight years by 33 percent. In fiscal year 2016, the state removed 19,079 children, according to Child Protective Services.

HB 7 is among a handful of priority bills that lawmakers are considering this session to address problems plaguing the state’s child welfare system. High caseworker turnover rates, lack of foster homes, and children dying while in the state’s care have become some of the worst problems.

House Bill 6 filed by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, which the chamber was supposed to consider on Monday but was postponed until Wednesday, is another large measure that would turn over many key foster care services to private entities. A similar bill in the Senate — Senate Bill 11 — passed in March.

The House on Monday also approved House Bill 1542, filed by Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, to allow foster children to be placed in so-called cottage homes. Such homes allow groups of up to 12 children. Supporters said that it would relieve the shortage of foster homes while opponents said that such homes are unsafe and are not a family-like environment.



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