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Analysis: On child protection, the money might be the hardest part

The safety net for Texas children has some big holes in it, and most lawmakers want that fixed. But it's going to cost money — a harder sell in a conservative Texas Legislature.

Women "walk the track" on a stretch of Bissonnet Street in Houston. Pimps gather nearby in fast food and strip mall parking lots as potential johns circle and standard traffic passes through.

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The state budget is tight.

Problems in Texas’ child welfare system have risen to emergency proportions.

Kids who have interacted with that system are disproportionately preyed upon by sex traffickers.

There’s a reason the state budget is at the top of that interconnected list. It’s not that money is the most important thing. It’s that the problems facing Texas’ most troubled kids stem, to a great extent, from the scarce resources applied to them.

There are too few child welfare caseworkers for the number of abused and neglected kids who need help. Average caseworkers have too many kids to monitor. Very few kids get all the attention they need — and some get very little attention at all.

That alone is bad, but the hits keep on coming. Lots of kids who end up being sold for sex in Texas were supposed to be rescued or diverted by that same child welfare system.

These are complicated, long-term problems. And legislators are no more satisfied with this situation than you are. But they’re the ones assembled in Austin right now with the means to do something about it.

The budget is being written as you read this. If the current legislative session takes the normal course, that work will be completed in May. It’s a massive undertaking that results in a two- or three-inch-thick bill that spells out, in dollars and cents and terse directives, the state’s operating policy for the two years starting in September.

Legislators are already moving on statutory changes they hope will patch the programs that protect endangered kids in Texas. Next comes the hard part: money.

This is the type of bleeding-heart stuff that erases party lines. Nobody wants kids to suffer when there is a way to avoid that suffering. And in this case, for the particular problems of child protection and child sex trafficking, money is an important part of the answer — one that can reanimate those party lines. You have to have the people to help, and you have to have enough of them, and you have to pay them for their work.

It’s not that complicated. It’s just hard to do.

It’s not that money is the most important thing. It’s that the problems facing Texas’ most troubled kids stem, to a great extent, from the scarce resources applied to them.

The difficulty, if the state’s history is any guide, is getting the money together, applying steady pressure to the problem and not simply treating it as a chronic condition that can be ignored between headline-grabbing flare-ups.

The state’s Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, said this week that he’d love to have more resources to help sex-trafficking victims. But Paxton, a former state representative and senator, said that’s up to the people with whom he once served.

"I don't get to decide policy,” he told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “What I do is, I enforce whatever the Legislature gives me authority to do.”

"Would we love to have more help? Yeah, we would," he said about funding to help those victims. "But we'll take what we can get."

Over the years, legislators have created some programs to help sex-trafficking victims but haven’t put their money — your money, actually — where their laws are. Grant programs have no money to grant. Shelters are small and scarce.

The state, while sympathetic, hasn’t given kids enough opportunities to escape from danger, to find safe places to grow up, to avoid the traps of street crime and sex trafficking and physically threatening adults.

If they get it right this time, lawmakers and budget writers will be able to judge themselves in part by how well those kids turn out — by how many of them don’t end up on the streets, mentored by pimps and criminals instead of parents and real-life heroes.

Budget writers cannot draw from an endless pool of money, and this year, money is tighter than usual. It’s not dire, but it’s tight. That’s why you want a bunch of smart people writing your state budget.

When it comes to kids in trouble, those smart people need to do more.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • State officials have done a lot of work to stop sex trafficking in Texas, but the results revealed by the Tribune's Sold Out series are demoralizing. The state's own safety net is part of the pipeline for victims of trafficking.
  • Lawmakers want to stop deducting dues for union and non-union employee associations from state paychecks — but only for the employees they disagree with. 
  • With an official forecast that less money will be available, the next state budget is tight. The finance folks are looking for money to make it balance, but don't fret: They've got plenty of tax-avoiding, budget-balancing tricks in their bags.

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State government Child Protective Services Ken Paxton Texas Legislature