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AUSTIN, TX –
A spike in the number of foster children who need extra care for mental and emotional disturbances has helped create a $20 million shortfall in the Department of Family and Protective Services’ budget.
DFPS officials warned state lawmakers Wednesday that number could double to a $40 million deficit in 2017.
“The system is broken,” said Tyrone Obaseki, who spent more than half of his life in foster care. For 18 years, Obaseki said he bounced between different foster homes and psychiatric hospitals while his case passed through the hands of several child placement agencies.
“All … were given the responsibility to ensure my protection but they never caught the fact that I was sexually abused,” Obaseki said.
A federal judge ruled in December the Texas foster care system is so broken that it often leaves kids in long-term care worse than when they entered.
“I think we are doing a better job on that,” said John Specia, Commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Specia told lawmakers in the past year DFPS has taken more corrective action and closed more facilities than the last five years combined.
“So in some ways we’ve hurt ourselves but that was the right thing to do, we shut down bad facilities,” said Specia.
The agency acts as a ‘parent’ to nearly 30,000 kids in Texas and according to DFPS, about 5,700 of them need extra care for emotional disturbances and developmental disabilities.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing comes less than two weeks after a 17-year-old runaway from foster care was arrested in the murder of Haruka Weiser. Weiser, a freshman at the University of Texas, was assaulted and killed on the Austin campus.
State Senator José R. Rodríguez (D-El Paso) mentioned accused killer Meechaiel Criner at Wednesday’s hearing. He asked if Criner’s case had slipped through the cracks of the system and if so, who should be held responsible?
Specia answered, “Senator I’m not going to comment on that case specifically. That information is confidential.”
Specia added that he would send Rodríguez the history of case to see how things unfolded chronologically.
“This child was screaming out just as I did,” Obaseki said.
While Obaseki does not know Criner and has no knowledge of his case, Obaseki spoke out based on his own experiences and what he’s heard from other teens in foster care.
“We have young people who are crying out because they are being tortured,” Obaseki said. He also said foster care is like prison.
“When you step into the prison what you find is warehoused animals, and that’s exactly how they operate.” Obaseki said the “broken” system is what breaks down kids and causes many of the mental and emotional problems in Texas foster kids.
Obaseki said, “If we don’t turn the tide by having effective and compassionate people who are trained, we will create a Jeffrey Dahmer and it’s not that child’s fault. It’s the state’s fault.”
Lawmakers vowed to do more to “repair” the system in the next legislative session in 2017.
That could mean a bigger budget for the DFPS, but some of the top Republicans on the senate committee suggested the solution is more efficient spending, not more money.
DFPS received an additional $230 million dollars from the state last session and to fund a number of reforms recommended under the state’s 2014 Sunset Review process.