August 15, 2012 - Texas Network of Youth Services

August 15, 2012

San Antonio, Texas

Texas Network of Youth Services, Inc. Annual Conference

It is a true pleasure to be back in the Lone Star State. I want to take this opportunity to thank and recognize Theresa Tod.

Theresa embodies all the virtues and reasons we all endeavor to help children, especially those whose vulnerabilities expose them to lives of trauma, heartache and gut wrenching loss.

Theresa has been a galvanizing force in Texas, indeed much of the Southwest, helping to spearhead a children’s movement.

Nearly 25 years ago, she looked around and wasn’t content with the status quo for runaway and homeless youth. She knew the child-serving community in Texas could and would do more.

Stepping forward with many of you here today to fill that void, more than two decades later, thousands and thousands of children are better off because of her tireless efforts.

Theresa, while I wish you Godspeed in retirement, I know that you will not be far from the effort. Your compassion and expertise will always be needed and welcomed at the table.

When it comes to the children and families we serve, the theme of this conference ….Their Future is Our Business…is the absolute truth.

There is perhaps no greater professional endeavor than to serve children and youth who have been traumatized in their own homes by those who are supposed to love them most.

The calling that drew you all here will never make you rich, but there is no greater reward than knowing you have helped a child and family reunite in a safe, stable and supportive environment or find a new and loving forever family.

When your business is their future, the rewards you reap are beyond monetary compensation.

And, as in any business, you all in this room know, you are far better off investing in the future than paying for the past. Or, as the great abolitionist and early civil rights leader Frederick Douglass often said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”or women.

And whether those children are the sons or daughters of your neighbors down the street or from across the border, when they are desperate, when they are scared, alone and vulnerable, we will serve them.

Whatever their reason to leave their homes, seeking safety and shelter elsewhere, we will serve them because they all have the same needs. These needs may be different in their specifics but they are similar in their nature.

Since late last year, we at the Department of Health and Human Services began to notice a disturbing trend….a marked increase in the number of unaccompanied alien children coming across the border.

Many of them teenagers, but many of them so young you can’t imagine the horrors they must have suffered on their journeys from El Salvador or Honduras.

Unaccompanied children arriving stateside are, sadly, nothing new.

They flee gang violence, crushing poverty and a life so marginal that a trek of a thousand miles… at the mercy of the coyotes who transport them… is a gamble they and their parents are all too willing to take.

Before February of this year we were seeing spikes and drop offs in the numbers of children arriving. But by March and April the numbers were holding steady at twice those of the same months from years past.

In short, double the number of children from previous years has become the new normal.

This new normal overwhelmed the system. In April, we had 170 children sitting in a border patrol station with nowhere to go. To make matters worse, 70 of them had to be quarantined due to an outbreak of chicken pox.

As we began to shift and reallocate resources, it became clear that we would need a great deal of help from the state of Texas.

Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, HHS essentially, deputized the Florida Department of Children and Families and relied on that agency--of which I was secretary at the time--to repatriate 27,000 Haitian Americans and medical evacuees.

During that repatriation effort, we came to realize that in times of national crisis and emergencies, the states often have greater capabilities and skill sets than the federal government…especially when it comes to child welfare.

As is in Florida, it soon became clear that in order to respond to the needs of so many unaccompanied alien children entering the United States, we would need the help of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission as well as the United States Department of Defense.

Putting politics aside in the name of what’s right, Commissioner Suehs (pronounced Says, or Sez), Commissioner Lakey, Commissioner Baldwin, and Chief Kidd proved that the future for these desperate children of Central America was their business. 

They made Texas proud and you should all be extremely grateful for what they did. I know I am.

As we continue to grapple with this new normal, there is one thing President Obama, Secretary Sebelius and I can count on Texas’s unwavering commitment to make sure those children are treated humanely, their safety is a priority and that their future, while still uncertain, is much, much brighter.

In the end, these children are searching for that Shining City on a Hill, and the same things we all want for our children.

That is why it is of utmost importance to reunite these children with family members; either a mother or father here, or an aunt or uncle.

That is why we are reluctant, just as in dependency cases here, to exercise the state’s ultimate police power. The power to sever familial ties and bring a child into foster care.

Whenever we can work together to keep a child from coming into care, we are better off. The system, though oftentimes necessary to save a life, is never an adequate substitute for a loving, safe, nurturing family.

But the system is getting better. This year, we will grant up to 10 Title IV-E waivers allowing states great flexibility to apply their foster care and child welfare dollars in ways that better serve children and better serve families.

The waivers will allow the qualifying states to spend money to keep children out of care instead of having to bring them into the system to draw down the required funds.

Think of what Mr. Douglass said again. It is far, far easier to work with a family as a unit and in the early stages of distress.

And, it is a much, much better investment.

These states will be building a more efficient system that treat the root causes of trauma instead of its devastating effects.

They will be dealing with issues of psychotropic medications and initial, as well as periodic, screenings and assessments that help kids by addressing each child’s specific needs instead of labeling them and medicating them accordingly.
Texas, under the leadership of many of you in this room, has come so far to reduce the number of children in care and on psychotropic medications.

You can do so much more with the IV-E waiver. The framework for next year’s proposals is being drawn up, and I am encouraging leaders here to apply.

It makes sense for kids and it makes sense for Texas. The innovations that many of your organizations have generated will only be enhanced with greater local control over how these all-important dollars can be spent.

So, imagine a system where removals are dropping and reunifications are increasing in heretofore unheard of numbers. You are the future of the Texas system and your imaginations are the only limits of what you can do to improve it.

When I was with the Florida DCF, one of the first things I did was to have dinner with 15 young people who had aged out of the system or were close to it.

In those several hours, those young people opened my eyes to improvements we could make that the professionals never could. That is not a knock on those wonderfully dedicated people, but until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes it’s just not the same thing.

They told me things like, they wanted to be able to date, spend the night at a friend’s house, get a driver’s license. All things they couldn’t do because of the restrictive “independent living” rules and regulations.

They wanted to be normal. That’s what the IV-E waiver allows you to do. Every removal reduces a child’s chance at normalcy and increases the time it takes to get there.

Many times it’s the only choice, but oftentimes, bringing services and treatment into the home would be far better for everyone involved.

Another issue that is requiring states to be at their innovative best is human trafficking.

No longer can we sit back and think of this as only a refugee issue, or an issue of foreign sex workers and indentured servitude.

This is a child welfare and juvenile justice issue. And we must begin to work with these children to let them know they have alternatives. They don’t have to turn to a life of prostitution and deprivation.

But in order to do that, we have to begin working together with law enforcement, health departments, juvenile justice authorities and the school systems.

In meetings with the FBI, it has been made clear that the young girls in particular are being recruited more and more from large licensed group homes and high school campuses.

We cannot allow another generation of young people to grow up thinking we have abandoned them to the pimps and johns who prey on them and call it love.

For in the absence of love, they will find its hollow and harrowing substitute in the saddest of places. We must do better.  And we will.

If you need inspiration, and I know that we all do from time to time, look at Lopez Lomong, now an American long distance runner, but years ago, one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan.

One of thousands of children trapped in that country’s bloody civil war, Lopez was abducted at 6 and set to be trained as a child soldier. He was lucky enough to escape his captors but spent the next 10 living in refugee camps in Kenya. He finally made it to America where he showed early promise as a distance runner, eventually trying out for and making the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

His fellow athletes were so moved by his story, the made him the flag bearer for the U.S. I remember seeing him enter the stadium in front of our team. All the other teams from all the other countries had one thing in common. Most of their team members were very similar in look and color and ethnicity.

The American team was a beautiful, colorful celebration of this nation’s diversity…our true greatness for every country to see.

We are great because of our diversity, not despite it.

Lopez did not win any medals in 2008 and he did not win any medals in London these last two weeks. But he is a true American champion and proves that we all are if we believe in that American dream.

Like the farm workers who move their families to follow the harvest seasons. They share Lopez’s dream and belief that it can come true.

Late this spring, the White House hosted a gathering of 100 parents who participated in the Migrant Head Start program. It was such a moving experience to be able to hear their stories and discuss with them their dreams.

One mother, after telling of her many hardships, said: I used to have Mexican dreams, but now I have American dreams.

Farm working families, especially those who migrate with the seasons, face very real risks of parental detention and deportation.

HHS is committed to working with your agencies and networks in Texas and throughout the Southwest to ensure those families, and especially those children are not abandoned to an uncertain fate.

When I visted the Rio Grande Valley earlier this Spring, I toured the Francisco Flores Migrant Head Start program in Westlaco.  There, two contemporary buildings house a cadre a of committed, energetic adults who are leading groups of even more energetic children as they read, sing and learn together.

Their work cycles with the crops. In the late spring, as the citrus and celery and cotton crops all drew to a close in south Texas, so this does this Head Start program. By mid summer, as tomatoes and cucumbers ripen in Indiana and Ohio, the program continues there—with some of the same teachers moving right along with the migrant families.

It’s not easy to plan an educational program around a mobile population, by this Texas  provider – TMC – does it well and has been doing so for 40 years. Working with grantees like TMS, we can and will ensure that services are provided so children of farm workers can maintain their family life with as little disruption as possible.

I want to close with a quote from Robert Kennedy regarding the American mystique: "Time and time again the American people, facing danger and seemingly insurmountable odds, have mobilized the ingenuity, resourcefulness, strength, and bravery to meet the situation and triumph.

“In this long and critical struggle…. We must continue to prove to the world that we can provide a rising standard of living for all men without the loss of civil rights or human dignity to any man.”

Thank you and God bless you all.