Judge Darlene Byrne sat on the bench one day in November hearing the 28th case of the day on her Child Protective Services docket. The young woman before her was pregnant with her ninth child and wanted to reunite with her other eight children who were scattered among various homes.
The otherwise patient and soft-spoken judge raised her voice.
“These children did not make this mess; the adults in this room made this mess,” Byrne said to the mother, whose name has been withheld to protect her and her children’s identities. “Love does not feed or shelter or clothe or take your kids to the doctor. Love’s a good thing, but it’s not enough to raise a kid.”
More children are living in poverty than ever in Texas. About 1.7 million Texas children — 26 percent of the total population — live below the federal poverty level, according to United States census data released this week. Experts speculate that a key factor in the increase in reports of child abuse and neglect is the struggling economy; the number of reported cases of abuse has gone up 6 percent in Texas since 2008, before the recession.
In Travis County, the number of new cases opened with Child Protective Services rose 36 percent from 2008 to 2011.
“In an economic downturn, when you’re losing your job, it pushes you over the edge in terms of the resources you have both internally and externally to care for your kid,” said Jane Burstain, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal research group.
Texas lawmakers have worked in recent years to keep children in their homes or with relatives instead of moving them to foster care. In Byrne’s 126th District courtroom, the goal is to reunite children with their families. But in many cases, like that of the mother she saw in November, it does not work.
“The thought that that’s even appropriate is staggering to me that we’ve got another child on the way and Mom and Dad can’t even take care of these,” Byrne said. “I’m just floored we would think that we’d bring another child onto the planet.” (Byrne is a donor to The Texas Tribune.)
The foster care system remains overwhelmed, and Child Protective Services, like most state agencies, was hit with severe cuts during the 2011 legislative session.
Child abuse prevention financing was slashed by 44 percent. And because the Legislative Budget Board did not increase financing for caseload growth or to support family services or relative caregivers, the agency will continue to operate on a budget designed in 2009. Shelters and facilities that care for children and provide services like domestic violence prevention and protective parenting classes are struggling to find ways to serve more families with far fewer dollars.
The Austin Children’s Shelter receives 30 percent of its financing from the state and relies on private donations and grants to make up the rest.
The number of teenagers in the emergency program at the shelter has increased 23 percent since 2010, and the number of teenagers in the shelter has grown by 27 percent. More people are also staying longer, including a couple that has stayed for two years.
Kelly White, the shelter’s chief executive, said it has seen an upsurge in the number of adolescents and children who require serious treatment.
“We’re doing everything we can to not have it affect care,” said White, who has laid off two employees. “Some things we’ve done to save money we realized were not good for kids, so we’re having to figure out other ways to do that.”
White said the larger number of older youths coming in is most likely a result of the economy. “All of those things create the fertile ground that can create more abuse situations,” she said.
The average length of stay has nearly doubled, to 62 days in 2011 from 32 days in 2008. And many youths who have aged out of foster care end up back in the shelter, she said, because they cannot find jobs.
SafePlace, which provides services to victims of domestic violence and children accompanied by family, has seen the number of parents who have children in the CPS system increase to 60 percent.
“I don’t think that a bad economy causes violence,” said Julia Spann, executive director of SafePlace. “The precursors are already there, and then you add all the stressors and it gets worse. Then it’s harder to get help, and for shelters it’s harder because people don’t even have the means to leave the shelter because they can’t get jobs.”
To keep children in foster programs connected with their families or communities, the Department of Family and Protective Services is working on a foster growth redesign program, which will award a contract in 2012. The plan will restructure the way the state pays for foster care so that children can stay close to home and quickly move out of the system into permanent homes.
The program aims to help children who bounce around between multiple foster homes, as was the case with one Austin Children’s Shelter client who lived in 32 foster homes by the time he was 16.
Although White said the overhaul is necessary, the new program will most likely reduce the amount of state financing the shelter and other care facilities around Texas receive because it could result in lower reimbursement rates for services. “I hate talking about kids where you get down to a rate, but unfortunately we have to make sure that we also pay our bills,” White said.
Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the family and protective services department, said that with no end in sight to the recession, the agency is reallocating resources statewide to have as many caseworkers as possible working directly with families. The agency is also constantly monitoring caseloads, he said, to ensure they are manageable.
“It is, admittedly, a big job,” he said, “but we are up to it.”
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected. The original story stated that SafePlace had seen a 60 percent increase in the number of parents who have children in the Child Protective Services system. They have seen the number of parents with children in CPS increase to 60 percent.