Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.
When children enter the Texas foster care system, they're given a suitcase, some clothing and state-funded health insurance.
Starting Sept. 1, they will get something else they sorely need: muscle to help them navigate the system, find their caseworkers and report complaints about their foster homes. A newly created position — foster care ombudsman — will serve as an advocate for the 30,000 youth under the state's protection.
"We're really excited," said Sarah Crockett, public policy coordinator for Texas CASA, a group that places volunteers with children taken into state custody because they were abused or neglected by their parents. "This ombudsman will be able to contact someone immediately" in the event of a problem.
Child advocacy groups including Texas CASA pushed for the foster ombudsman after finding out that most of the children in Texas foster care didn't know where to go if they had questions or encountered bigger problems about their foster caregiver. In the last three years, only three complaints by foster care children have been filed with the state, and those were filed by children savvy enough to navigate their way to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services' consumer protection office.
But foster care children were telling volunteers with CASA — which stands for "court-appointed special advocates" — another story.
"We heard everything," said Crockett. "From 'I never saw my caseworker' to sexual abuse in a placement."
Kristopher Sharp, a 23-year-old who was formerly in Texas foster care, found himself with nowhere to turn when he was molested by an employee at the group home where he was placed. Sharp, who is now a congressional fellow with the LGBT Equality Caucus in Washington, D.C., testified this past legislative session on the bill's behalf.
"We were never able to tell anyone," Sharp said. His caregivers "would stand over me when I was talking to my caseworker."
Under Senate Bill 830, authored by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, the new foster care ombudsman will work for the Health and Human Services Commission and oversee and review complaints submitted by any of Texas’ foster youth. The bill establishes procedures to keep foster care children's information confidential in order to prevent retaliation.
"Young people in the foster care system will now have a truly neutral outlet to raise concerns about the care they receive," Kolkhorst said in a statement.
The commission has yet to announce the hiring of the ombudsman or release exact details about how foster children will be able to reach the advocate.
It is still looking for the right applicant for the new job, which will pay somewhere between $55,000 and $90,000.
"Meetings are still ongoing about staffing and functions," said Enrique Marquez, the agency's spokesman.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Senate Bill 830 as a House bill.