April 30, 2007, 4:01AM
Measure passed in Senate awaits committee's OK
By ALYSHA N. HERNÁNDEZ
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
SAN ANTONIO — Elizabeth Marie Garcia's life as a foster child was heartbreak at its finest.
The young San Antonio woman was taken from her home by Child Protective Services when she was 4 because her parents were neglecting medical care for Garcia, who has cerebral palsy, and her brother.
"I went through so many struggles, but I'm a strong person," she said, adding that she was sexually abused by one of her first foster parents and had bouts of depression and self-mutilation. "What helped me get through it is my strong faith in God."
Over the years, Garcia lived in four foster homes and one group home. When she complained about abuse, Garcia said, her caseworker didn't believe her. She was prescribed medications for depression and anxiety that made her feel like a zombie.
Throughout her foster life she had inadequate knowledge about her legal rights, which included the right to consent to some or all of her medical care once she was 16 years old. Had she known about her rights, she said she would have refused some of the drugs.
"I knew I had an attorney, but I wasn't told that I could contact her at any time, and I didn't even know how to contact her," Garcia said. "Plus she didn't really know me, she just knew my name on paper."
'Respect and hope'
Senate Bill 805, which passed the Senate earlier this month and sits in the House Human Services Committee, empowers foster youth by educating them about their rights.
The bill, by Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, establishes the foster children's bill of rights.
"All children have a bill of rights, but foster kids are special kids," Uresti said. "They are the children of Texas, and Texas is responsible for them."
In 2006, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services estimated that more than 34,000 foster children passed through the system.
Uresti's bill compiles 50 existing statutory rights and rolls them into one comprehensive laundry list. The bill then mandates that a simplified version of this list be clearly explained, printed and given to each foster child. It would be translated if necessary, or communicated in any way necessary for a child with a disability.
"A lot of the kids in foster care have gone through an awful lot. Their parents may be incarcerated, deceased, on drugs or may have had rights terminated," Uresti said. "We just want to give them respect and hope."
Careful structure urged
The legislation asserts a foster child's right to a safe, healthy and comfortable home that's free of abuse, discrimination or harassment. It would mean a foster child has the right to adequate amounts of healthy food and appropriate medical care. The bill allows children to attend religious services of their choice, gives them certain rights to privacy and allows participation in extracurricular activities.
"There is very little stability for (foster kids). They may bounce from parent to parent, home to home, school to school, from one set of rules to another. What is OK or even emphasized in one environment may be forbidden in the next," Rodriguez said via e-mail. "I feel this foster children's bill of rights could bring some normalcy to the lives of Texas foster children while at the same time providing them with the ability to advocate for their rights."
However, Conni Barker, director of government affairs at DePelchin Children's Center in Houston, urged a carefully structured bill that would deter rebellious foster children. She said she is concerned that some rebellious youths would stretch the meaning of some of the rights or abuse the privileges.
"We want to teach healthy boundaries," she said. "We want these foster kids to grow up to be healthy adults."
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Garcia is overjoyed about the bill's success so far.
"I feel the Legislature needs to listen to us because all the children in our society need to have the best care," Garcia said.
Since leaving foster care, she has transitioned to a life on her own. Garcia has her own apartment and plans to graduate from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in early childhood development this fall. She acknowledges that she is just one face in a sea of many foster children, but hopes that this legislation educates foster youth about their rights.
"If I had known my rights," she said, "I would have had them on paper, as backup."