Attorney speaks to UT law students about foster care reform

Sami Sparber

When it comes to reforming the foster care system, attorney Stephen Dixon said state governments have a legal obligation to protect foster children’s right to “healthy childhood development.”

Dixon, of counsel with Children’s Right, a national advocacy organization that defends the rights of children in foster care, spoke to UT law students on Tuesday.

“In foster care, the state is the de facto parent,” Dixon said. “We need to investigate and ask, ‘Is the parent causing injury to the child? Is it impairing the development of the child cognitively, linguistically, emotionally, educationally, psychologically, physically or socially?’ If the answer is yes, (the state) has violated that child’s constitutional right.”

While acknowledging that the reformation process will take time, Dixon said Texas, in particular, has the resources and leaders needed to usher in a new era of foster care.

“Texas is poised to have the best foster care in the country and the world,” Dixon said. “We are poised to do this, but we have to make sure we don’t give up, because we are so close.”

Dixon’s claim was met with skepticism by several audience members, including UT clinical law professor F. Scott McCown. McCown said that Texas lacked the funding needed to overhaul the system.

“(Dixon’s) idea that we’re poised to take a jump forward is dependent on a lot of money flowing in,” McCown said. “I think the students ought to know the root problem here is a lack of tax capacity, and that’s not going to be an easy fix.”

Dixon said that while the fix might not be easy, there is a fix — and it’s within reach.

“We need to fully embrace the right to healthy child development,” Dixon said. “When we do, we’re gonna liberate the foster children, families and neighborhoods, and we’re gonna address in a deep way, in a molecular way, in an individual way, a family way, a community way, the social ills that we have previously found intractable. We’re gonna do it the right way and in a way that gets finally turns things around.”

Dixon’s words resonated with law student Daniella Salazar, who said she understood McCown’s reservations but agreed with Dixon’s point about Texas’ potential for reform.

“I think ‘poised’ is the key word that was maybe being overlooked by the audience,” Salazar said. “But ‘poised’ is the right word because we have all the resources, we just don’t have the vehicle to move it into action yet.”