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February 4, 2011 - Session Watch

Education, CPS, social service cuts invite a perfect storm for more violence against kids

By Sen. Carlos Uresti

While most of the budget talk coming out of Austin has been dismal so far — much like the capital's frigid weather in the session's fourth week — the Senate Finance Committee caught a glimpse of sunshine in the testimony of Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs.

The Senate's baseline budget calls for a 10 percent reduction for Medicaid and CHIP providers, but Suehs urged the committee to pare that back to just a 2 percent cut. That would restore about $125 million in state funds during the 2011-2012 biennium and attract $190 million from the feds.

That was good news for kids and the doctors who treat them, but when talk turned to Medicaid services for the elderly and funding for child protection, the dark clouds rolled back in.

Suehs heads the Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the Department of Aging and Disability Services, the Department of Family and Protective Services, Child Protective Services and other human service agencies.

Under SB 1, the overall HHSC budget will get a 29 percent cut — from $49 billion to $35 billion. That's bad news for a lot of people, ranging from elderly Texans who will lose some of the optional services provided by Medicaid to children who are at risk for abuse and neglect.

According to the latest CPS statistics, 227 children were killed by their parents or other caregivers in Texas in the 2010 fiscal year, compared to 280 in 2009. There were 17 deaths in Bexar County, compared to 13 the previous year.

While the statewide numbers have improved, we are still in the grips of a child abuse epidemic. Yet SB 1 would abolish 750 positions at CPS, the front-line agency against child abuse in Texas.

Some of those will be intake positions, which handle calls about child and elder abuse cases. The agency concedes that staff reductions will increase caller hold times and the corresponding abandonment rate by 18%, putting children and seniors at greater risk of harm.

The spending proposal would also impose great hardship on the state's foster care programs, with a 5 percent reduction in the average daily rate for foster care and a 1 percent reduction in the payment ceiling for adoption subsidies. The bill does not account for caseload growth, which is inevitable, nor does it replace expired federal funds.

It's difficult to fully calculate the human impact of these proposed cuts, but the words painful and devastating come to mind. When you put fewer people and resources into a fight, the ground you have gained is usually lost.

While 53 fewer child deaths last year is a measure of progress, the final tally of 227 deaths is unacceptable.

And consider this. Beyond those cases that result from insanity or sheer evil, child abuse is caused mostly by poverty, lack of education and marginal job skills, teen pregnancy, and immature parents who aren't ready for this experience.

The cuts that SB 1 contemplates for public education and other social net services, together with the cuts to CPS, would result in an explosion of child abuse cases. It is a perfect storm scenario for more battered lives. I know Texas can do better.

How do we do that? In the coming weeks, as the budget process proceeds and other committees begin to meet, I will use Session Watch to talk about some solutions. Stay tuned.

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