A Few Weeks After Harvey Reflection

It has been about two weeks since southeast Texas, including my hometown of Houston, has been hit by hurricane Harvey. Like most people here in Houston, Harvey gave me an opportunity to stop everything and just reflect on a lot. On one hand I am ashamed at myself because it took devastation to do this, but on the other hand, I can understand why so much perspective is lost in a world where we are just going, going, going.

One of my immediate thoughts, as the storm just lazily stayed over Houston for so long, was, “I sure am glad I can ride the storm out with family and loved ones.” I did not really realize till the waters started rising right before my eyes that this has more significance than I could really ever give it. There were thousands of people who had to be evacuated with boats. There were thousands who had lost everything they have ever had. Oddly enough though, my brain went from fear to guilt, to a mixed emotion that I cannot quite put into words.

Now, a few weeks later, I wonder what happened to kids who are living at the mercy of the foster system during the storm. I know I was feeling some major cabin fever and, like I said before, I was with the ones I love most. I cannot begin to imagine what children, especially those already in seemingly unstable environments, felt. It concerns me even more because the media never really talked about any places evacuating or any updates about any group homes or even foster families. Most of the stories I saw on mainstream news outlets were about neighborhoods or pets being brought to safety. I know pets are important, and believe me I could not live without my furry friends, but why did I hear so much about the rescue of animals but nothing about the rescue of children who are the responsibility of the state?

It turns out that there were hundreds of kids who did have to evacuate to safer locations during the storm. (I had to do a little bit of digging outside of mainstream news to find that out.) Even though it is not news that the child welfare system needs a little rejuvenation, there are some reports that CPS was actually able to make a timely checkup on the majority of kids after the storm. Most likely, these were not conventional visitations but at least the children were accounted for. In Houston, the CPS workers, like most other occupations, were not able to report to work right away because of the flooding and road closures. Even a few weeks after the storm, the city is not at 100% functionality. I think that although I would never wish a Harvey on anyone ever again, this city learned a lot of lessons about what we need to deem important and the things that are simply secondary.

To anyone who is still displaced because of Harvey, I wish you well. The Center for Children Law and Policy at the University of Houston is more than happy to help in any way we can!

To anyone who fared well in the storm, I challenge you to make an extra trip to a neighbor today and every day (disaster or not) to ask them if they need anything. Let us not forget the lessons we learned during Harvey and lend a helping hand to ANYONE in need!


Weekly Roundup

Wilmington’s teen violence statistics draw strong reaction

A year-long investigative project by The News Journal about teen gun violence in Wilmington has provoked elected officials and community members to speak up. The three-day series, which ran in print and online over the weekend, revealed that children ages 12 to 17 are more likely to be shot in Wilmington than any other place in America. It also showed that elected officials have failed to fully implement the prescription provided to the city by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention… Read more here

Congressional Justifications for Mental Healthcare: A Dangerous Stereotype?

Most Americans are aware of the stereotype that people with mental illness are more violent and dangerous than the general population. Everyone has seen or heard of a slasher film where the “slasher” is an escaped or released psychiatric patient on a murder spree. In the last decade, due to multiple high-profile mass shootings, discussions surrounding mental illness and violence have become especially prominent not only in entertainment media, but news media as well. According to a 2014 study, news media frequently blame mass shootings on what they perceive to be the mental illness of the shooter, further stigmatizing people with mental illness as violent and dangerous… Read more here

Let’s make the new youth detention center unnecessary

Opening a new, $30 million youth detention center in Baltimore is certainly no reason to celebrate. No question, the new facility is a big improvement in terms of the educational, psychological and other services that will be offered to alleged juvenile offenders while they wait for trial, and placing them in a dedicated building, away from adult offenders, was necessary to secure their safety and civil rights. But the youth advocates who wish we could have spent that money on programs to keep youth out of trouble rather than on a building to confine them are absolutely right. When a young person winds up behind bars waiting for trial in adult court, that’s a reflection of failure by adults, not the child.. Read more here


New York Legislature moves New York ahead of Texas in protecting teens from child marriage. By: Lauae Wolfe

With New York Times taglines like “young teenagers, New York State is calling the wedding off,” New Yorkers are happy to announce law changes that protect children from young teen marriage. Previously allowing marriages of children as young as 14 with court and parent approval, now marriages of children between the ages of 14 and 16 are “abolished” in the state of New York. State Assembly member Amy Paulin sponsored the bill, and gladly announced the measure will “dramatically change the lives of girls in New York.” Quoting the President of the Organization for Women of New York, the New York Times hailed the measures as proving “New York is poised to lead the nation in recognizing child marriage as a human rights violation.” Governor Cuomo and legislatures championed the bill as ending what they termed as “a form a child abuse.” It’s hard not to agree with Cuomo, quoted in a Daily News article, that “[i]t’s shocking current law allows for children as young as 14 to be married off.”

Without protection against “coercive” child marriages, there is often a gap between the age a child can marry and divorce. Like a child who can marry at 14, but not be legally granted a divorce or seek asylum in an abuse shelter until they are 18. In Texas, a child can marry with just parent approval at 16, and younger with court approval, according to Texas Family Code § 2.103. The Houston Chronical reports the most recently available data shows that just in the five years between 2009 and 2013, 718 ages 15-17 years old were married, and that 120 of those were married in Harris County. If you go back as far as 2004, and look at the nation as a whole, the Tahirih Justice Center shares that 4,500 children were married.

When will Texas follow New York, and protect children by passing similar legislation? Just last month, Texas House Bill 3932 was unanimously voted to pass to the next stage by the Juvenile Justice & Family Issues Committee, and twin Senate Bill 1705 passed out of the Senate. Moved by a Houston Chronicle article written by Francisca Ortega about her mother, “A Child Bride in Texas,” lawmakers have championed the bills as a measure to end the heart-wrenching practice of coerced teen marriage that Senator Van Taylor says will “continue to haunt [his] memory.” Citing CDC data, Francisca Ortega shares that even in marriages “willingly joined” by children rarely last, and that it is too late to make up ground lost once educational opportunities are set aside, and the associated challenges of “increase[d] risk of mental health issues, domestic violence, abuse and poverty” occur.

Houston is at the center of a large patch of counties cited in the Houston Chronical article “The Texas Counties with the most married children,” that estimates 15.4 million minor girls are married each year in the world. You can support Unchained At Last in moving for legislative changes by emailing legislatures right on their site if you currently live in California, Connecticut, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania or Texas, where legislation to end child marriage is under consideration.

My own mother at 17 decided to marry my biological father, pictured above. He was older, she barely knew him, going from an honors program in high school to married with three kids before she turned 21. College scholarships left behind, it took years to finally leave an abusive relationship with her kids in tow, and two decades more to finally go back to finish her college degree. Even years older than Francisca Ortega’s mother in “A Child Bride in Texas,” it was a tough road back from an early marriage, one our family was affected by for years. The legislation proposed in Texas isn’t perfect, it still allows marriage between 16-17 years old with parent and court approval, but it is far better than the system currently in place. Our courts and advocates can be involved to ensure at least coerced young marriages are curtailed, and I urge involvement and letters to legislators to see the measure in Texas, and those similarly situated in other States, to quickly pass.