Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
As the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey continues to take a physical and emotional toll on Texas residents, those who were already in precarious situations are finding themselves in even more dire straits.
Children in foster care in the greater Houston area are again finding themselves displaced as flood waters have wiped out around 50,000 homes and continue to devastate residences, businesses, and organizations. As evacuation efforts continue, the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) remains responsible for children in residential and congregate care facilities, those in foster homes or with relative caregivers, and those who are still in the custody of their parents.
State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) and members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force held a press conference Thursday afternoon to highlight the increased need for foster care services and support as San Antonio continues to receive hurricane evacuees.
Uresti founded the Blue Ribbon Task Force in 2005, with the mission of developing and advancing community-based solutions for child abuse and neglect.
"Under the best of circumstances the youth in foster care face an uphill battle," Uresti said. "This storm has impacted everything for these kids."
As a response to the heightened need for services for foster care youth and providers, the Bexar County Child Welfare Board and members of the task force introduced for the first time the Friends of the Bexar County Child Welfare Board, a fundraising effort focused specifically on providing resources and services to the partners who serve children under State care as they prepare to assist potentially thousands of foster families, kinship families, and children in the conservatorship of the State who will be in San Antonio for the days and weeks to come.
Funds raised will also go toward helping older adults who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey, as the Texas Adult Protective Services falls under this service umbrella.
San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Education/Workforce Development Priscilla Camacho, who is a Bexar County Child Welfare Board member, said it is important to know exactly where funding is going when efforts to gather resources and goods are increasing rapidly across the state and nation.
"There are a lot of efforts and we don't want to duplicate," Camacho said. "Our goal is to support these particular families and children. This is a tough time and we can't even anticipate what issues might come up."
As of July 2017, there are 2,419 children up to age 17 residing in foster care in Harris County, according to a DFPS report. The same report says there are currently 1,819 in Bexar County.
In addition to efforts to house Bexar County's vulnerable populations, organizations throughout the city are joining forces to ensure that foster care youth evacuees continue to receive comprehensive wrap-around services, including mental and physical health screenings and continuation of care. Families who have lost their homes yet are still providing services to these youth also will receive assistance.
DFPS Commissioner Hank Whitman told the Rivard Report that the affected 325-mile stretch of the Texas Gulf coast is home to roughly 1,300 children in state foster care who were in dangerous conditions due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey.
Whitman said that all 1,300 children have been moved to safety.
"We have never faced anything of this magnitude," Whitman said. "We could have never fathomed that it was going to be this big."
While DFPS is working tirelessly to transition youth into new living situations, Whitman pointed out that caseworkers in the affected areas also have been personally devastated by Harvey's disastrous effects.
"There were a lot of caseworkers in that area. You're looking at around 3,000 case workers – out of those we think between 130 and 150 have lost their own homes," Whitman said. "Here is the amazing thing: They are all back at work."
It is with this spirit that organizations throughout Bexar County push through financial and operational capacity limits to provide the best care for affected populations.
Annette Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Children's Shelter, told the Rivard Report that as soon as she and her team heard that the hurricane was going to miss San Antonio and hit Houston, they began preparing for the influx of individuals needing services. The Children's Shelter immediately took account of its available space and began adding beds to accommodate evacuees.
"We always train for these kinds of things. We train for disasters, but we hope that they never happen. But now that it has we have the training and we are ready to go," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said that the main goal right now is to ensure that children and families in need receive immediate help, and that the Children's Shelter and partnering agencies are ready to provide that.
DFPS Commissioner John Specia said Texas has a long history of nonprofit and state organizations working together to provide services to vulnerable populations. What makes this situation different is that long-term services will be needed without a current end date in sight.
"These foster children need our help," Specia said. "These children are traumatized and when you're part of a flood you are more traumatized."
The Rainbow Room, a 24/7 resource center located within Child Protective Services' offices, collects new and essential items for children living in crisis. DFPS is ramping up collection efforts to provide for the increased need, as many families arriving from flooded areas have nothing but the clothes on their back. For locations to donate, click here.
During the 85th Legislative Session, SB 11 was passed, which takes foster care placement responsibilities away from DFPS and hands it to local government and nonprofits, who may use state funds toward localized efforts.
San Antonio is getting a head start on implementing this procedure as the Friends of Child Welfare Board begins to raise funds for local organizations directly servicing these individuals.
Uresti said that there are two important messages foster care children should know as they arrive in the city limits: "San Antonio welcomes you" and "We have your back."
To donate directly to the Friends of Bexar County Child Welfare Board, click here.