Nearly a quarter of the young children who came to the Child Crisis Center in El Paso in 2013 were from military families. Many ended up in the emergency shelter after state officials could not find English-speaking foster care families in the heavily Hispanic community who could effectively communicate with them.
“Repeatedly, we’re seeing placements break down, a lot in relation to the military family," said Alfonso Velarde, executive director of the Child Crisis Center of El Paso. "It’s difficult to find placement for a non-Spanish-speaking child in a foster home in El Paso."
On the heels of an expansion of Fort Bliss over the last several years, the emergency shelter in El Paso is seeing an increase in the number of children who can't be placed in foster homes because there aren't enough English-speaking families available. It's a problem that seems to be unique to the border community that is home to the burgeoning U.S. Army base, but it's one state lawmakers and policymakers hope will be considered during a redesign of foster care in Texas.
In 2013, 115 of the 496 children in the crisis center — who ranged in age from newborns to 13-year-olds and were brought to the shelter by Child Protective Services — came from active-duty military families, Velarde said.
The trouble, he said, stems from the demographic disparity between the population in the city and on the base. U.S. census data shows that 81 percent of the El Paso population is Hispanic. The Fort Bliss population is only 18 percent Hispanic, and white residents account for 61 percent of the base's population.
There are currently 617 foster homes in El Paso County and 307 children placed in those homes, according to the Department of Family and Protective Services. Despite the large margin of available homes, many children still land in the emergency shelter because there aren't enough English-speaking foster families.
The number of children from military families being placed at the crisis center began increasing two and half years ago, but the number of English-speaking foster families in the area has not kept pace with the non-Hispanic population growth at Fort Bliss, Velarde said.
Fort Bliss has grown explosively in recent years as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process that tripled its population as it transitioned from an air-defense center to an armor center. The expansion brought an additional 20,000 soldiers and 27,000 family members to El Paso, including 9,600 school-age children, according to the American Forces Press Service.
CPS Director of Placement Gail Gonzalez said instances in which language barriers complicate the placement of children with foster families are very rare statewide and that CPS continuously works to meet the cultural and ethnic needs of children in foster care and to recruit the appropriate service providers, particularly in areas with “unique qualities” like El Paso.
“It’s one of those things that develops over time as your population grows or your population changes [and] then you start seeing something emerge,” Gonzalez said. “It takes a little while before the data … catches up.”
CPS does not track cases in which children are unable to be placed with a foster family because of a language barrier. But Gonzalez said that CPS has not experienced a “similar strain” in San Antonio, which houses the Army's Fort Sam Houston and also has a large Hispanic population. Other Texas bases, she said, have not seen the same dramatic expansion as Fort Bliss.
The increase in foster children from military families is seemingly unique to the emergency shelter in El Paso because of the younger children the center takes in and because of the differences in population on and off the base.
Sandy Rioux, executive director of the El Paso Center for Children, said his center, which serves as an emergency shelter for older children, between ages 10 and 18, is not seeing the same challenge in finding homes for children from military families.
Velarde said the uptick in younger children from military families at his center is largely the result of an increase in younger soldiers and families coming to El Paso as Fort Bliss became a leading training and deployment center for the U.S. Army.
Concerns about the availability of foster care in El Paso come as the state is gearing up for wider implementation of “foster care redesign,” which includes increasing partnerships with private contractors, to streamline the foster care placement process and keep children closer to home when they’re placed with a foster care family.
The placement issue in El Paso came up during a House Health and Human Services Committee hearing last week to assess the implementation of foster care redesign after state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, asked Velarde to testify.
This week, Gonzalez said Velarde’s testimony was a “very basic step to alert the committee on what the challenges are going to be” when implementing foster care redesign in El Paso, where placement capabilities are already strained by the varied English proficiency levels among potential foster families in a majority-minority city with a growing military population.
“For a child that may be coming in with Fort Bliss and this may be their first experience in a border community, those type of families may not feel well-equipped to deal with a child whose whole life has only spoken English,” Gonzalez said.
This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.