Texas House Tackles Child Welfare Reform — After Devolving Into "Racist" Debate About Undocumented Families

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Texas' system for handling the state's most vulnerable kids — those facing neglect or abuse so severe that the state has to assume custody of them — is in crisis mode. Has been for a while, according to the gut-punch ruling from a federal judge in 2015 that excoriated the Texas foster care system tolerating the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse of children in state custody.

Lawmakers across the ideological spectrum, from Democrats to middle-of-the-road state House Speaker Joe Straus to firebrand conservative Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick, have called child welfare reform a priority for this legislative session. And they took their first crack at the issue Wednesday, with both chambers unanimously passing bills expected to overhaul the system.

That is, after the House debated whether children of undocumented caregivers deserve state support.

The two chambers had taken up a pair of bills, House Bill 4 and House Bill 5, which would allow the state to compensate family members who take in vulnerable kids — much like they currently pay foster families. While lawmakers might disagree on exactly how much money each family should be able to get, basically everyone agrees kids are better off when placed with responsible people they're related to and not foster families. That scenario is much more likely to happen if the state can actually pay supportive families a reasonable amount, which is probably why there's blanket bipartisan support for the measure.

But in the House, the debate got hijacked early on by Mark Keough, a second-term Republican from the snazzy, golf course-rich Houston suburb of The Woodlands. That's because Keough, a car salesman turned pastor, filed an amendment banning payments to any undocumented families who might be supporting those children who would otherwise end up in state custody (which, as we and others have reported, often does not end well).

"Why would we create an entitlement for people who are here illegally in our country?" Keough said, before insisting his measure was "on the side of virtue."

The amendment threw the House into the kind of long, heated debate you don't usually see until the late, grinding-down days of the session.

Dallas Democrat Rafael Anchia was the first to cut into Keough, calling the measure "absolutely offensive." He worried Keough's amendment had basically set a racist, anti-immigrant tone for the rest of the session. "This feels really racist," he thundered. "If we’re starting like this, what the hell is the rest of the session going to be like?"

When one fellow Democrat offered a "compromise" that basically axed Keough’s proposal, San Antonio's Roland Gutierrez fired back: "I don’t think you can find a middle ground to hatred. I don’t think you can find a middle ground to racism."

Keough's proposal to target immigrant kids ultimately withered away. But apparently his piety remains in tact. "I’m not a racist," he told his colleagues. "I love people. I love the people of my church. And I love all of you."


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