OPINION COLUMNS

Fiery rhetoric about toilets distracts from actual child safety issues

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, May 18, 2016
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Places exist all over our state where young girls are put at risk.

They are in real danger of sexual assault or worse.

These young women are taken advantage of in their most vulnerable moments.

If you have been paying attention to the loud outcry of our elected leadership in Austin, you might think these places are public school bathrooms.

You’d be wrong.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

The correct answer is our state’s foster care system, according to a recent federal court ruling.

A class action lawsuit was brought against the State of Texas a few years ago, and U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled in December that the constitutional rights of 12,000 children in the state’s foster care system have been violated due to a system that has been broken for “decades.”

She didn’t mince words.

Foster kids under the charge of the Texas Department of Family Protective Services “have been shuttled throughout a system where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm,” Jack said in her verdict.

An Associated Press story published a few days ago told the stories of just a few former foster kids named in the lawsuit who were victimized by the failed foster care system. One young woman described how after she was placed in a foster home, another foster child would choke her until she passed out.

She also testified that her foster father would sexually abuse her. When she would report it to her caseworker, the report would state that the girl was “wearing provocative clothing” and “asking for it.”

It’s hard to tell just how many girls and boys have been abused. Jack’s verdict said overloaded caseworkers and reports of abuse that have been filed away in a mountain of paperwork have left kids “at unreasonable risk of harm.”

In fact, Jack found that “foster children often age out of care more damaged than when they entered.”

The judge assigned a special master to help the state implement the goals she laid out to bring the system up to where it needs to be.

You’d think that would be a wake-up call to our elected officials in Austin. At the very least, you’d think they would place overhaul of the foster care system at the top of the priority list.

If you thought that, sadly, you’d be wrong again.

Attorney General Ken Paxton instead asked a federal appeals court to block the judge from naming a special master to keep her from launching a “judicial takeover” of Texas’ foster care system.

Basically, the argument is, “Yeah, we know there’s problems, but it’s not that bad and we can handle it, so butt out.”

Paxton was one of several elected officials to speak at last week’s Republican Party of Texas Convention. I didn’t read any reports where he mentioned the foster care crisis.

Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also apparently didn’t have anything to say about the foster care issue in their speeches to the convention crowd.

But both fired up their fellow Republicans when they spoke of the evils of letting transgender students use the bathroom that matches their gender identity and not the sex on their birth certificate.

Patrick seems to be particularly fixated on fighting any accommodations for transgender students, claiming that such accommodations will lead to assault on young girls in public bathrooms.

Last week, Patrick dumped the toilet issue onto the scene in Texas by calling for the resignation of Fort Worth ISD Supt. Kent Scribner after the school leader approved a bathroom policy to accommodate transgender students. Patrick even attended a school board meeting to show how serious he was.

The lieutenant governor has been particularly outraged by President Barack Obama, who issued an executive order Friday requiring public schools to allow students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Of the two issues – the abuse and rape of children in the foster care system and allowing transgender students to use the restroom where they feel the most comfortable – Patrick has called numerous press conferences to discuss one of them.

Of the two issues, Patrick has gone on national television to talk about the dangers associated with just one.

Of the two issues, Patrick named one as the “biggest issue facing families and schools in America since prayer was taken out of public schools.”

(For the record, that would include issues surrounding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which strengthened earlier court ruling about the racial desegregation of schools.)

Want to venture a guess on which issue Patrick wants to talk about? If you picked the former rather than the latter – sorry, wrong again.

Patrick has made it clear he is much more interested in fighting the bathroom battle than fighting for kids who are at risk of abuse in a system designed to protect them.

While we have zero reports of men in dresses in women’s bathrooms sexually assaulting women or children in our state, we have testimony of numerous former foster children about the horrible neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse they endured.

One young man featured in the Associated Press story said he entered the foster care system at age 10 and was molested beginning around age 12. After about 25 placements, he refused to move 600 miles away during his senior year and found himself living on the streets of Houston, turning to prostitution for a place to stay or for a meal.

The State of Texas – under the leadership of many of the very people who are sounding the alarms about child safety in bathrooms – has allowed these crimes to take place by failing to adequately address the problem.

So what has our elected officials practically doing the pee-pee dance to jump into the bathroom fray but not the foster care issue?

Politics, of course.

It’s easier, and politically advantageous, to paint a scary picture of a boogey man lurking in restroom stalls in order to scare the public into supporting a “fix” to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

That way, our elected officials don’t have to fix the actual problems that exist.

It’s political sleight of hand.

It’s lazy, and we should demand better from our elected leaders.

Because Patrick is not worked into the same frenzy over young girls being raped in foster care as he is at the thought of a transgender nightmare awaiting us in school bathrooms, he reveals the real reason for wanting to make this as big an issue as possible.

He is perhaps the biggest champion of school choice in our state. He wants to use this as an example of how our public schools are failing, which further supports his argument for things like charter schools and school vouchers.

Perhaps he will soon suggest that parents of cisgender youth simply transfer their children to another school, leaving the transgender youth in their own school.

You know, “separate but equal” and all.

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, site of one of the first big battles in the fight for racial desegregation of public schools. The visitors center contained stories from the “Little Rock Nine,” the first black students to attend the formerly-all-white high school in 1957. It chronicled the physical and emotional abuse of the conflict, which often took place in the restrooms where white students once threw a flaming sheet of paper into the stall occupied by a black girl.

It was heartbreaking.

I saw a photo in the display that stuck with me more than most. It’s a white woman holding a sign which reads: “We like you, we just don’t want to go to school with you.”

I almost expect at some point this summer we will see a similar sign outside a school, only slightly modified: “We like you, we just don’t want to ‘go’ with you.”

I hope I’m wrong.

In the meantime, my hope is that our elected officials will do the right thing and address real abuse problems instead of discriminating against transgender youth simply to further political ambitions and pet projects.

Brian Knox is special projects manager at the Messenger.

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