Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. April 10, 2022.

Editorial: If Texas can’t fix its foster care system, feds should step in

If Texas won’t fix a child foster care system that remains dangerously broken after two decades of neglect, the federal government should step up pressure to comply with their recommendations for reform or take the task out of Texas’ hands.

We reach this conclusion after the latest Texas foster care debacle, this one involving possible sex trafficking of young girls at a Bastrop foster home. It’s been 11 years since children’s advocates filed a still-ongoing lawsuit against the state Department of Family Protective Services, and six years since a federal judge appointed special monitors to oversee the foster care system and recommend changes. But monumental problems persist, requiring drastic, long-overdue action.

The state is still failing to find adequate placements for the growing number of children who need a home in Texas. It has routinely shipped some of these children to unlicensed out-of-state foster homes, sometimes putting them in dangerous situations. It has lost track of kids in the system. Overwhelmed case workers are quitting in droves. Instead of adhering to court rulings aimed at improving the system, the state resists, having now spent at least $10 million fighting the rulings on appeal.

Continued failure at the highest levels of state government to make sweeping reforms is why we support U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack’s call last week for a federal criminal inquiry in Bastrop. Jack has also threatened to hold the Department of Family and Protective Services in contempt of court for a third time and impose stiff fines if the agency doesn’t make significant improvement. If that’s what it takes to force reform, she should do it. Federal monitors assigned by Jack in 2016 to supervise the Texas foster care system should step up pressure on the state to comply with their recommendations.

Additonal money budgeted by the Texas Legislature in the past five years has helped provide more services for children in foster care, but the state still isn’t keeping up with demand for beds. Lawmakers should tap part of a projected $25 billion state budget surplus this year to create more safe housing for the growing number of children -- now totaling more than 10,000 -- in long-term foster care. But money alone can’t fix the state’s failing foster care system. That will also require policy reform.

In March, Texans learned that an employee at the Refuge Ranch, a state-contracted shelter for young female sex-trafficking victims in Bastrop, was accused of obtaining nude photos of two girls who lived there, then selling the images and using the proceeds to buy them drugs and booze. After a shelter employee reported the staffer, it took eight calls over six weeks before the state temporarily shut the shelter down and began investigating.

The sordid saga unfolding 30 miles east of Austin is infuriating but sadly, not all that surprising. The Texas Department of Family Protective Services routinely fails to keep vulnerable children in foster care safe. More than 100 children have died in Texas’ long-term foster care system in the past two years. Hundreds of Texas foster kids slept in state offices, churches or other makeshift living spaces last year because there aren’t enough beds in foster homes.

Some foster care advocates and the lead attorney suing the state told our board this week that allowing a court-appointed receiver to take control of the foster care system should also be on the table, but only as a last resort. They would prefer Texas put its own house in order.

We understand their reasoning, but if the state doesn’t demonstrate that it will do so -- and soon -- then federal receivership is warranted.

When news of the Bastrop allegations became public on March 8, Gov. Greg Abbott shut the shelter down and ordered the Texas Rangers to investigate. Just six days later, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McGraw asserted in a letter to Abbott that a preliminary investigation found no evidence that Refuge Ranch residents were sexually abused or trafficked at the facility. Abbott took to Twitter to complain that “many people jumped to false conclusions.”

It now appears Abbott, who is running for reelection, and his top law enforcement official are the ones who may have jumped to false conclusions. The federally appointed court monitors in charge of foster care oversight in Texas conducted their own investigation and in a March 28 court filing said “evidence strongly suggests” that McGraw’s finding of no violations “was, at best, premature.” The monitors determined that recurring managerial lapses at the shelter had led to “serious risks to child safety.” They also found that Texas Rangers had failed to interview one of the shelter residents involved in the alleged nude photos incident.

Paul Yetter, a Houston lawyer who has waged a nearly two-decade, pro-bono class action legal battle to force Texas to overhaul its foster care system, condemned Abbott’s tweet.

“These kinds of comments -- that nothing happened here -- are exactly the opposite of the widely-known evidence,” Yetter told our board. “For them to say nothing happened is shameful.”

On March 30, Jack said she would request a federal investigation in Bastrop, asking the U.S. Attorney for the western district, Ashley C. Hoff, to determine whether child pornography was produced and distributed at Refuge Ranch, and if it would qualify as sex trafficking. Jack also wants to know if obstruction of justice occurred. We strongly support her request and urge Hoff to address it as quickly as possible.

During a daylong court hearing in January, an exasperated Jack apologized for heaping scorn on state foster care officials during testy exchanges about the ongoing lawsuit, “Sorry I act so angry,” Jack said at that hearing. “It’s actually because I am angry.”

Anyone who cares about the welfare of vulnerable children should be angry about decades of foster care mismanagement, too. Abbott last month expressed outrage at the Bastrop incident and frequently talks about “Texas values.” But how do Texas values align with a foster care system that leaves vulnerable children in harm’s way? Over the past five years, the Texas Legislature has approved more than a half-billion dollars to address this crisis. The money helps, but it would be more effective if the governor would demand major policy changes to ensure the taxpayers’ money would be better spent to improve a foster care system in utter and shameful disarray.

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Dallas Morning News. April 8, 2022.

Editorial: Stop Title 42 and start serious border reform

When is someone in Austin or Washington going to show some leadership on the border crisis?

President Joe Biden’s administration hasn’t gotten a handle on the desperate crisis at our southern border any more than the administration of Donald Trump did, or the administration of Gov. Greg Abbott, for that matter, and the latest round of posturing doesn’t give us confidence that our leaders will cooperate on meaningful reform anytime soon. Ending Title 42 is the right policy, but Washington has to be consistent and realistic about the consequences it will have, not just in the realm of immigration, but in politics, security and public health.

Title 42 is the reincarnation of a rarely used clause in the 1944 Public Health Services Law, that requires asylum-seekers to wait outside the U.S. while their claims are processed in order to reduce the spread of disease. Activated at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Title 42 can hardly be called a Trump policy any more since it has been in place under Biden almost as long as it was under his predecessor.

As Biden’s opponents will agree, the pandemic is waning, and lingering government strictures to control its spread are making less and less sense by the day. Expelling asylum-seekers can no longer be reasonably justified under the pretense of controlling COVID-19.

We’ll add, too, that neither can restrictions in other federally controlled spaces. Why should citizens in airports be required to wear masks, which offer diminishing benefits, while public health restrictions on non-citizens are lifted at the border? As we have written before, mask mandates are a minor annoyance, not an existential threat to democracy as some on the more panicked fringes insist. But the government should be consistent here. Lift restrictions at the border and in the boarding line.

The larger point here is about our acute need for comprehensive immigration reform, not COVID-19 precautions. And on that frontier, we see very little leadership. Abbott’s announcement Wednesday that he intends to use Texas tax dollars to ship immigrants to Washington, D.C., is a nonsensical political stunt, not a serious policy solution. Treating migrants as political props crosses a clear line of humane treatment, whether the program is voluntary or not, and it cheapens serious efforts to secure the border.

Abbott has reason to be concerned about the immigration crisis, but his responses, from Operation Lone Star to this latest busing bluster, beg the question of whether he wants actual results or political points.

As we have argued many times before, our nation needs robust immigration reform. That means an infusion of resources, alignment, communication, and common sense into the process of vetting immigration applications. It may even mean — heaven forbid — cooperation between Austin and Washington.

Another wave of heavy migration will undoubtedly follow once Title 42 is formally lifted next month. The blowback will be severe. And, we expect, the curtain will lift on another act in this political theater. We’re ready for a finale.

Any nation has a right to secure its borders. A great nation has an obligation and a need to welcome immigrants and asylum-seekers. At some point, our nation has to get this right.

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Houston Chronicle. April 6, 2022.

Editorial: Trump allies want Abbott to declare a border ‘invasion.’ Have they heard of Ukraine?

You’ve seen it in every newspaper and cable TV channel for weeks — the dazed eyes of a pregnant woman carried on a stretcher from a bombed-out maternity hospital. The sagging scaffolding of buildings dusted the ashen color of apocalypse. The crime scene of bloated bodies — faces down in the dirt, hands bound — strewn throughout a town called Bucha, giving little doubt that an enemy intent on stealing its neighbor’s sovereignty has now resorted to murderous war crimes to achieve its goal.

That, dear reader, is what an invasion looks like.

It is bloody and violent and, in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, executed by a military at the whim of a tyrannical autocrat.

It is not a scattered stream of desperate men and women, including moms and dads, sometimes with children in tow, risking life and limb on journeys of hundreds of miles for a distant shot at freedom, opportunity and mere survival. These people are called migrants. Or immigrants. Or asylum-seekers. Not invaders.

Yes, there have been crises at the Texas-Mexico border. No, not every border-crosser meets the qualifications for asylum — and that certainly includes the occasional criminal and drug-trafficker in the mix. Yes, the Biden administration needs to step up, especially now as he plans to end a Trump-era rule barring entrance, and provide the resources to shelter and process the claims of new arrivals, who, for better or worse, still see America as a shining refuge from violence, war and persecution.

But we strain to convey our disgust at the idea being perpetuated by former Trump administration officials that Gov. Greg Abbott should combat the humanitarian challenges at the border by declaring an “invasion,” an act intended to broaden the governor’s power to take war-like actions against migrants.

Tom Homan, the former acting director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Trump, floated this idea at a border security conference in San Antonio last week. Homan’s plan involves a novel interpretation of an obscure clause of the U.S. Constitution that would allow the National Guard or state police to forcibly send migrants to Mexico, without regard to immigration laws and law enforcement procedures.

Ken Cuccinelli, a former Homeland Security official under Trump, endorsed this idea, arguing that states are entitled to defend themselves from immediate danger under the constitution’s “states self-defense clause,” which says states cannot engage in warlike actions or foreign policy unless invaded.

Basically, in Homan and Cuccinelli’s war games fantasy, Abbott would play Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the heroic Ukrainian president, defending the Lone Star State from a Putin-esque foreign enemy intent on burgling American sovereignty.

But who would they have play Vladimir Putin? A gaggle of unarmed migrant families from nations throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America whose primary offense is seeking a better way of life?

Alas, this is no Hollywood war epic, but a real-life policy prescription that may have legs. Homan has reportedly been in Abbott’s ear pushing this preposterous notion as a response to the Biden administration’s announcement that it would stop turning away asylum seekers at the border under a Trump-era public health order, known as Title 42. The Trump administration issued the controversial health order in 2020, arguing it was necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19. It remained a key tool in Biden’s efforts to handle record numbers of border crossings during his term, used to expel migrants 1.2 million times since he took office.

Ending Title 42 is the right thing to do. Even if its prompt processing and ejection protocols deterred some people from coming, the policy has had dire consequences, with organizations such as Human Rights Watch tracking thousands of kidnappings, rapes and violent assaults against asylum seekers expelled to or blocked at the U.S.-Mexico border since Biden took office.

Tens of thousands more asylum seekers have waited months or years to exercise their legal right to seek protection. Federal data show the policy actually led to more border encounters, not less, since single adults who are expelled don’t suffer financial consequences and many simply return to try and cross again.

Yet it’s also true that ending the policy will have consequences for our already over-taxed immigration system. Border Patrol officials are bracing for as many as 18,000 arrivals daily once Title 42 expires in May. Last week, about 7,100 migrants per day were coming to the southern U.S. border.

We’re encouraged to see the Biden administration thinking proactively, establishing a “Southwest Border Coordination Center” in February and transferring hundreds of agents from northern and coastal borders to support its operations. The administration will also implement long-delayed plans to provide COVID-19 vaccines to migrants taken into custody.

In our own fantasy, nobody declares war on migrants or yells “invasion” but instead, Abbott worked with Biden and together they’d find a way to humanely process the expected influx of migrants.

Now that the Republican primary has passed, we hope Abbott can resist the seduction and perhaps even arm-twisting by immigration hard-liners such as Homan and Cuccinelli. So far, according to Homan, Abbott has been non-committal. That’s good news for migrants and also Texas taxpayers, since weaponizing this rarely used constitutional clause will almost certainly lead to costly litigation.

Abbott only has himself to thank for the uncomfortable position these extreme border hawks have put him in. The governor spent months beating his chest about the thousands of National Guard and Department of Public Safety troopers on the border carrying out Operation Lone Star, who jailed migrants on state trespassing charges and erected border fencing on privately owned land. Only after his border mission was exposed as a $2 billion boondoggle has he started to rein in his rhetoric.

Color us surprised and hopeful that Abbott seems lately to be acknowledging what this editorial board and seemingly every immigration expert has been saying for years: immigration is the federal government’s responsibility.

Actually, now he may be hammering home that point a little too zealously with his announcement Wednesday to literally bus migrants to Washington D.C., presumably a symbolic and very real effort to hand off responsibility for the immigrants to the feds.

Abbott’s unsavory theatrics as the tough-talking border governor are no substitute for federal action, including comprehensive immigration reform, more judges and resources for backlogged immigration courts and increased diplomatic efforts on the ground in troubled home countries.

If Abbott has really seen the error of his ways he should outright reject the absurd “invasion” suggestions from Homan and Cuccinelli. He should send the National Guard troops back to their families and lead an effort to work with the Biden administration to develop a sensible border and immigration policy and brace for the expected post-Title 42 surge in migrants. They are not foreign invaders threatening our sovereignty and our lives; they are the huddled masses drawn to this land by America’s storied promise of liberty and refuge.

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Lufkin Daily News. April 6, 2022.

Editorial: Changing Attitudes: There is no need for anyone, anywhere to silently suffer at the hands of another

Sexual assault and child abuse are not easy subjects to talk about but they occur in our community far too often.

Many cases go unreported because of the victims’ belief that somehow they are to blame. Sadly, many victims are too young to even know the ramifications of an assault perpetrated upon them.

April is both Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month to promote awareness that these societal problems are not the victim’s fault and should be reported. More importantly, these awareness campaigns promote education and prevention to reduce, and hopefully some day eliminate, these crimes.

The graphic on our front page is a reminder for Lufkin and Angelina County residents that putting an end to these crimes is their responsibility. No one likes talking about these crimes, but this community is failing its most vulnerable residents by ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away. The current count on that front page graphic proves ignorance is not bliss.

The statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization — and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center are horrific.

■ An American is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds.

■ Only 25 of every 1,000 rapists will end up in prison.

■ 91.9% of women are sexually assaulted by an intimate partner or acquaintance.

The statistics from TexProtects, the official chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America, are just as bad.

■ In Texas, more than four children die from abuse or neglect on average every week, 184 children are confirmed victims daily, and more than seven children are maltreated every hour.

■ More than 80% of child abuse cases in Texas are the result of neglect.

■ About 90% of child abuse victims know their abuser.

Victims of abuse are often conflicted about how they feel about themselves, according to District Attorney Janet Cassels.

“Frequently, victims feel a sense of shame.’’ Cassels said. “Children have trouble dealing with these situations, even bigger kids.”

Not all adult victims are the victims of sexual assault, according to Cassels. Some may have lived with a batterer and feel a sense of shame that they allowed themselves to be treated this way. Worse, she said, some have issues where they feel a misguided sense of having deserved it.

Substance abuse and financial insecurity also are contributing factors, Cassels said, calling substance abuse a huge factor and really prevalent in the vast majority of cases her office handles.

“There is nothing fair about being a victim,” she said. “But the best you can do is try to assist them through the process and try to put them in touch with the resources that may be able to help.

“And just understand, there is work for the victims to do that can’t be done for them. You can try that, but everybody is an individual, and those that manage best have some support, even outside of the system.”

Those resources include the Janelle Grum Family Crisis Center of East Texas, which tries to provide relief and support to abuse victims.

Advocates who work for the center are trained to provide counseling in various capacities. The center operates a safe house as well as a number of client services, including support groups. The center also advocates for those who believe they may be witnessing cases of abuse, helping them find the words to speak up and provide support to the victim.

In cases where sexual assault has been reported, local authorities look to Harold’s House for assistance. The local child advocacy center provides a forensic interview of the alleged assaults, as well as a SANE exam from a qualified forensic nurse who is specialized in conducting evidentiary exams of sexual assaults. While Harold’s House is a child advocacy center, its sexual assault services are not only for young victims.

Both the Janelle Grum Family Crisis Center and Harold’s House provide their services at no cost.

Chances are someone in your life is a survivor of sexual harassment, assault or abuse, even if they have never shared their story with you. Preventing sexual assault and child abuse is up to each of us. What we say and do every day sends a message about our beliefs and values.

So what do you believe?

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New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. April 6, 2022.

Editorial: Red hot housing market driving values skyward

You’ve heard this story before, because we’ve reported this story before, but the taxable values for the county, city, school districts and other entities is about to go up.

Way up — between 30-40% for many of them.

Some of those increases are from new growth. Things that were vacant land aren’t vacant land anymore — instead there are homes, restaurants, shops, etc.

Some of those increases are driven by skyrocketing values on our homes and businesses, which will mean bigger tax bills.

There will be critics who will say that the appraisals are out of line with reality — and in some cases that might be accurate — but in most, it’s not.

If you were to put your house on the market at the value assigned, you would likely sell it in a heartbeat.

We’ve done stories on the bidding wars for housing in New Braunfels where people are getting multiple offers that well exceed asking prices.

If you’re selling, it’s great news. As long as you’re taking all that money and going somewhere else.

The appraisal system isn’t broken. The housing market is.

Some of this just comes down to — as one appraisal district official said — supply and demand. We don’t have enough houses. That means those that exist are more valuable.

Investors have also played a role in buying houses that might have otherwise gone to families. But that’s also the market — and money is flowing into places that can reap the most profit. And New Braunfels and Comal County aren’t alone. This is an issue just about everywhere you look. Some places are just hotter than others.

Is this another housing bubble? Researchers with the Dallas Federal Reserve recently reported signs that might point that direction, but until something happens that shifts the trajectory of the market, it’s going to be a costly one to enter — and for taxpayers — a costly one to remain in.

END