Last year, a federal judge declared the Texas foster care system broken. That’s no small-scale problem. There are more than 30,000 children in Texas foster care each year, and national studies indicate up to 80 percent of them have at least one chronic medical condition.
'It's not every day you get to meet your daughter'
Most people in North Texas know Kenneth Sheets the politician. The 40-year-old Republican has been a state legislator for six years. Fewer know Kenneth Sheets the foster care parent.
“It was our calling to adopt from the foster care system,” Sheets says.
After several years of trying to have children of their own, Kenneth and Michelle began the lengthy process of becoming foster parents. They were finally selected as foster parents for siblings: Brooke, who was 8, and 3-year-old Cameron.
“We met Brooke first," Michelle says, "At an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant in East Texas. That little girl ate her way through some noodles like nothing I’ve ever seen! I still remember how scared she looked when we walked in. I myself was very nervous to meet her. I changed my clothes three times. It’s not every day you get to meet your daughter for the first time.”
Foster kids need checkups and routine care, they often have special medical needs as well. Then there’s the state-mandated paperwork and check-ins. Kenneth Sheets, who just lost his state house seat in last month’s election, says for foster parents, health care choices through Medicaid are limited.
Texas doesn't meet health standards for foster kids' care
The American Academy of Pediatrics outlines two dozen health supervision standards for foster care children. A report by the Texas Pediatric Society’s Foster Care Committee shows Texas completely meets only one of the two dozen standards.
Dr. Anu Partap, assistant professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says there isn’t consistent health assessment or monitoring as a child moves through the foster care system.
“Children frequently enter care with drug withdrawal, discomfort from neglected health care, inability to talk walk or learn or brain damage from abuse,” she says.
For years, Partap has worked with CPS staff, the Department of Family and Protective Services, STAR Health and others to develop a comprehensive health care center centered at Children’s Health in Dallas.
Foster care will be a priority in the Legislative session
Texas lawmakers, doctors and foster care families attended the opening of the new Rees-Jones Center for Foster Care Excellence in Dallas this week.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott helped cut the ribbon.
“In this room," he said, "is the brain power, and the prayer power that we need to conquer the challenges that our children confront in the state of Texas.”
In November, Abbott appointed a new head of the Department of Family and Protective Services and asked lawmakers to approve $150 million of emergency funds. He’s said fixing the broken foster care system in Texas will be a priority in the next legislative session."
“But not all of the answers come from Austin, Texas or places like Washington D.C.," Abbott said. "I’ve found that often, the very best answers come from our local communities, from our churches, from our innovators, from our health care professionals.”
The new 12,000-square-foot foster clinic in Dallas is modeled on Children’s Health smaller Plano campus. The two sites will provide medical and mental health care to 3,000 children, plus an on-site CPS liaison to coordinate care with state agencies. Anu Partap says the health care delivery model is based on three principles:
“Early intensive treatment for abuse victims, continuous caregiver support and safe, medical transitions. These are essential to keep them safe and recovering while in foster care.”
Partap hopes the center becomes a model for foster care systems across the country.
As for Kenneth and Michelle Sheets, the years of preparation, anxiety and paperwork finally paid off. They adopted both Brooke and Cameron in 2013. They're about to spend their fourth Christmas together.