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Analysis: A teen’s death — and a failure of policy

The death of a teen on the run from the state's foster care system stirs deeper questions: Why aren't these programs working, and who will be held to account for that?

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A Texas teen was killed early Sunday morning in Houston after a van hit her. Nobody wanted that.

Nobody intended to put her in a foster care situation she would run from. To try to house her temporarily in a state office building. Or to have her walking with a gaggle of kids down a Houston street shortly before 3 o’clock on Sunday morning.

She shouldn’t have been on the run, shouldn’t have been on the streets and shouldn’t have been hit. Blame doesn’t fall easily here, either; it’s not like someone planned her death.

But stories like this raise questions about who should bear responsibility for chronic flaws in state programs for the down-and-out.

Would this happen if the system ran the way it’s supposed to? Could the state do something to make things work better? Are the legislative and executive branches even wired to fix problems like this, or is this an example of what happens when you turn a certain type of policy problem over to political people?

Caution reigns supreme in the elected class, which offers a window into how political people react to crisis. They try to solve the problems at hand, one of which is the risk to their reputations.

It is not that lawmakers do nothing in these instances. But their actions tend to solve the problems they’re most concerned about, to work on the things that activate voters. And like chronic diseases treated only when they flare up, the state’s policy problems persist.

It’s a headline-driven government. State officials react to bad news — whether presented by the media, by citizens in town halls or by opponents in political advertising — quickly and purposefully.

With a handful of exceptions, the state’s politicians are not well-known personalities, famous as they’d like to think they are. Politics is not one of our most esteemed professions. The chances to make good, lasting impressions are rare; the opportunities to end tenuous political careers — and that, frankly, is a fair description of most legislative tenures — are common.

Caution reigns supreme in the elected class, which offers a window into how political people react to crisis. They try to solve the problems at hand, one of which is the risk to their reputations.

One way to manage the risks is to put troublesome state duties into private hands, as lawmakers have done with prisons, the lottery, transportation and many health and human services programs — like foster care.

Outsourcing government services attracts plenty of debate, for and against — it can be more cost-efficient, it shrinks the apparent size of government, it shifts financial uncertainties to the private sector and so on. From a political angle, it has this attraction: The lawmakers who privatize something get credit when it works and get to blame contractors when it doesn’t.

If you’re cautious, what beats that? And as recent court cases show, you can even move public records into the dark by handing things over to private companies. Records that are clearly in the public realm when in government hands can be outsourced into the shadows. The Senate has moved legislation to rectify some of that, but it remains a huge hole in the state’s open information laws.

And it’s a boon to anyone who’d rather keep those records closed, whether that’s the companies doing the work or the government officials who hire them.

The foster care system is partly privatized, operated by people contracted by the state to take care of children who for a variety of reasons don’t have parental care. It works, sometimes, but this is a safety net with big holes. The state’s child protective services programs are on the governor’s list of emergency items — so prone to failure that a parsimonious Legislature is ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fix it.

They haven’t “fixed” it for 12 years; 2005 was the last time lawmakers scrambled to patch the state’s chronic problems in children’s welfare programs.

It’s hardly the only example; it’s just the current example. Lawmakers “reform” school finance every decade or so. They raced to finance transportation with toll roads — remember the argument for fees paid only by the people using those tollways? — and are racing now to calm voters boiling mad about those fees. Public and private prison-building sprees come and go, as do overhauls of the criminal laws that fill those facilities.

One way to solve a problem is to name the people assigned to solve it. That’s what elections are supposed to do, isn’t it?

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • You might rejoice or bewail the death of a piece of legislation, but remember this time-proven adage: Nothing is really dead while the Texas Legislature is still in Austin. 
  • Things almost never come out of the Texas Legislature — if they come out at all — in the same shape they went in. Principles give way to exceptions and compromise, and the final product can differ greatly from the original idea.
  • If you got the states together to take power away from the federal government, as Greg Abbott hopes to do, and if you increased the state's powers over laws passed by cities and counties and local voters, the most powerful office in the state capital would really be something. 

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