Texas Passes Legislation Creating Ombudsman to Serve Foster Youth

Texas legislators passed a bill last week to create an ombudsman who will independently address issues foster youth have with the Department of Family and Protective Services.

The ombudsman will work for the Health and Human Services Commission and oversee and review complaints submitted by any of Texas’ 30,000 foster youth.

Katherine Barillas, the Director of Child Welfare Policy at One Voice Texas, said that former foster youth had come to her expressing their issues with the current system.

“They really felt there weren’t enough protections for them in foster care,” Barillas said. “We recognized immediately there needed to be better shape and definition in the office in that it had to be independent.”

Prior to the creation of this ombudsman, the Department of Family and Protective Service ran the office to investigate complaints against itself. Sarah Crockett, the public policy coordinator for Texas Court-Appointed Special Advocates, said this model of internal investigation wasn’t effective.

“It was clear [foster youth] didn’t feel comfortable calling the department about the department,” Crockett said.

One Voice Texas worked with Texas Court-Appointed Special Advocates to push the bill into legislation. The organizations gained the support of Republican Sen. Lois W. Kolkhorst and Democrat Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. to champion the bill.

After testifying before the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee inside the Texas State Capitol on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, champions for House Bill 1371 (L-R) Katherine Barillas, One Voice Texas Director of Child Welfare Policy, and Sarah Crockett, Texas CASA Public Policy Coordinator, take a moment to thank former foster youth Kristopher Sharp and April McWilliams for sharing their courageous stories in support of the legislation. Credit: Texas CASA

After testifying before the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee inside the Texas State Capitol on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, champions for House Bill 1371 (L-R) Katherine Barillas, One Voice Texas Director of Child Welfare Policy, and Sarah Crockett, Texas CASA Public Policy Coordinator, take a moment to thank former foster youth Kristopher Sharp and April McWilliams for sharing their courageous stories in support of the legislation. Credit: Texas CASA

The bill, SB 830, establishes an independent, full-time ombudsman to specifically monitor and field complaints from foster youth about the Department of Family and Protective Services. It details policies including how the ombudsman should report complaints, file a yearly report on its services and prohibit retaliatory action against foster youths’ complaints.

The Department of Family and Protective Services’ system currently handles concerns of abuse, neglect and exploitation of children and adults with disabilities or people who are older than 65, according to its website. It does not have a specified person for complaints from foster youth.

This legislation will go into effect on Sept. 1, 2015. At that point, the Health and Human Services Commission will appoint an ombudsman for foster youth filing complaints against the Department of Family and Protective Services.

Meiling Bedard is a journalism intern for The Imprint and a junior at Boston University.

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