By Shelley Kofler
During his 18 years in the Texas Legislature, Sen. Carlos Uresti has wrangled many issues, but he’s devoted special attention to the dangers children too often encounter in their own homes.
He rattles off the grim statistics that keep him focused.
“Every year we have 60,000 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect in Texas, 150 kids killed last year from abuse and neglect,” said Uresti during a recent interview at the Texas Public Radio studios.
For Uresti the battle against abuse began with one little boy who put a face on the numbers.
The senator speaks softly as he remembers 4-year-old Jovonie Ochoa, a Bexar County child who died on Christmas Day in 2003
“He was starved to death by his grandmother, which doesn’t make any sense. That’s what triggered something inside of me to say we’re not going to allow that to happen.”
During more than a decade on legislative committees that address child welfare issues, Uresti has sponsored legislation to better train Child Protective Services (CPS) employees. He's pressed for the release of information on child deaths linked to abuse. He helped create the statewide Blue Ribbon Task Force that develops new strategies to combat the problem.
“You have to reduce [social worker] caseloads,” he said. “If you don’t reduce caseloads we’re never going to stop it.”
Uresti said the situation is still unacceptable but it has improved.
According to Uresti, a state social worker today handles about 35 child abuse cases at a time compared with some 80 cases a decade ago. The state used to lose 75 percent of its CPS caseworkers every year. Now, the turnover rate for case workers is closer to 35 percent.
“So we’re getting there, “ he observed, “but, I’ve said this for over a decade: If we don’t put more money into prevention we’re going to continue to spend hundreds- of-millions-of- dollars every year, and more importantly have 60,000 cases of confirmed abuse and neglect.”
Uresti painted a picture of an overwhelmed, 16-year old, teenage mother as he explained how more aggressive, intervention programs might prevent a tragedy.
“We could teach her parenting skills. This little baby is crying constantly because she has diaper rash. She’s teething. She has an earache that maybe a 16-year old doesn’t realize.”
He went on to describe a situation in which the young mother breaks up with her boyfriend. She has nowhere to live, no car and no job.
“What is she going to do?” he asked. “She takes out her frustrations on the child. That fact pattern I just gave you is happening even as we speak.”
“I know some people are saying, she made that decision. But that little baby didn’t make that decision,” he said somewhat emotionally.
Uresti said prevention services for at-risk parents and families should include mental health and drug abuse treatment. Caretakers may need assistance so they can complete school, find better jobs and provide stable homes for their children.
Uresti acknowledged it’s not always easy to gain attention for child abuse in a legislative session where thousands of bills will be filed and elected officials have their own agendas.
“I need more of my colleagues to agree we need to put more into prevention,” he explained.
According to Uresti, the state spends over a billion dollars every two years on the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which includes foster care, kinship care and CPS case workers.
“We’re only spending five percent on the prevention side,” he said, drawing a comparison. “Imagine if we could double that.”
“I think it is a moral obligation and a legal obligation to protect these children. I don’t see it any other way,” said Uresti, who hopes his comittment to ending child abuse will resonate with other lawmakers meeting in Austin.