Take the first step to becoming a CASA advocate:


Opinion: Arresting children in foster care adds to their trauma

Vicki Spriggs
Houston Chronicle Op-Ed
April 8, 2021Updated: April 8, 2021 3 a.m.

Imagine you’re arguing with your 10-year-old about his homework, and he kicks the wall and yells in frustration. Before he even has a chance to say he’s sorry, you pull out your phone and call the police. They arrive, handcuff your little boy, and haul him away. You can hear him crying as they load him into the police car. “Mom, please! I didn’t mean to!” He spends a night in a cell in juvenile detention and after he is adjudicated — essentially, found guilty — of damaging your property, he is put on probation. Now your little boy has a juvenile record.

As far-fetched and awful as this scenario may seem, it can be the cruel reality for foster children in residential treatment facilities here in Texas. Instead of receiving care and treatment for lashing out in totally typical ways, kids as young as 10 are being sent to the juvenile justice system (JJS). They are arrested for “crimes” as minor as kicking a wall or making verbal threats.

CASA volunteers, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, often work with children and youth in foster care who become involved with the JJS. In 2019, there were around 4,500 referrals — the equivalent of arrests — of 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds to juvenile probation. At least 50 percent of youth referred to the JJS may have been involved in the child welfare system at some point. We’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects the JJS has on their well-being, the way it dims their hope for a brighter future.

For this reason, we support HB 2821, which aims to limit the juvenile justice involvement with children in foster care who reside in licensed child-care facilities. It would require local juvenile probation boards to create community-based alternatives so youth in foster care who misbehave could attend support services or perform community service instead of having a juvenile record. We also support HB 487, a bill that would raise the minimum age that a child can be formally charged/adjudicated in Texas from age 10 to age 12. Although 12 is still too young for a child to be arrested and referred to the JJS, this legislation is a step in the right direction.

We know the part of the brain responsible for impulse control — the part that helps us think before we act — isn’t fully developed until well into adulthood. This is why even children in stable and loving homes sometimes act out. They literally can’t control themselves.

You’ve probably seen a kid melt down at the grocery store. Perhaps you’ve even dragged your own wailing, kicking child out to the car during a particularly fierce temper tantrum. Does that kid at the grocery store deserve a criminal record? Does yours?

We also know that many of the nearly 30,000 kids in foster care in Texas have experienced a level of trauma that would be hard for even an adult to handle. This trauma often leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), of which angry outbursts are a common symptom. One study found that foster kids experience PTSD at twice the rate of war veterans. Up to 80 percent of kids in foster care have significant mental health issues, with PTSD being the most common diagnosis.

But instead of being helped to process their trauma, kids in foster care are sometimes punished for it. Too often, residential treatment facilities for children —which are paid by the state to provide care and therapeutic services—call the police when those in their care are simply acting like the traumatized children they are. Foster kids who live in congregate care facilities are 2.5 times more likely to be sent to the JJS than children who reside in homes with foster families.

Once involved with the system, older children are more likely than younger ones to be sent to a juvenile detention facility. Children in juvenile detention often lose access to rehabilitative support services that could help them deal with their trauma. Denied the opportunity to heal, many kids experience a worsening of preexisting mental health conditions, like PTSD, during their detention.

Juvenile detention also appears to increase the likelihood a young person will commit a future crime, rather than lowering it. Support services for young offenders, on the other hand, have been shown to significantly cut crime and reduce costs.

For kids in foster care, one trauma-induced outburst can lead to a lifelong entanglement with the criminal justice system — a system that costs taxpayers billions every year. Many of these children have spent their lives at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. The least we can do is give them just a little more time to be kids without worrying they’ll be taken into custody for it.

Children in foster care deserve the same love and care as your own children. They should not have to live in fear of handcuffs and criminal charges for expressing their difficult feelings. Please, join CASA in supporting HB 2821 and HB 487. It’s a simple way to ensure that no 10-year-old is arrested for having a tantrum.

Spriggs is the chief executive officer of Texas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a nonprofit dedicated to improving the child protection system, and formerly spent 16 years as executive director of the Texas Juvenile Prob