A Texas senate committee heard testimony Monday on a proposed anti-choice law that could shuffle more abused children and teenagers into Texas’ troubled foster care system, on the same day witnesses gave heartbreaking committee testimony about the deadly failures of that same system.
The GOP-majority Texas house approved the anti-choice bill, HB 3994, last week after nearly four hours of debate. Senate leaders swiftly scheduled it for public hearing early Monday morning. That chamber has less than two weeks to approve the bill and send it to the governor’s desk before the end of the legislative session.
The bill requires that abortion providers assume every patient is underage unless the patient can present an unspecified “valid governmental ID,” which could end legal abortion care for undocumented Texans, and places stringent restrictions on the process by which abused and abandoned teens can access abortion care.
Currently, minors who fear or experience abuse from their parents, or whose parents are unable to consent because they are absent, incarcerated, or deceased, must obtain a judicial bypass to access legal abortion care.
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In these cases—about 200 every year—a judge can stand in for the parent and grant the minor permission to access legal abortion.
Among a host of increased restrictions, HB 3994 would raise the evidentiary standard that minors—some as young as 10 years old, according to testimony from a researcher at the Texas Policy Evaluation Project who implored the committee to “remember that incest is real”—must fulfill to prove they are being abused. The measure would also require judges to report a minor’s abuse to law enforcement. Critics of the bill have said this mandate could put the minor in even more danger, either from abusive parents or from neglect in the state’s overburdened foster care system, should the children be removed from their homes.
Representatives from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops testified neutrally on the bill, which was heavily amended before it passed out of the House of Representatives, and questioned the law’s mandatory abuse reporting requirement.
A representative from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault testified against the bill, saying that the current process, built out of bipartisan consensus more than 15 years ago, works well to help abused teens.
“I’m hearing very little acknowledgement from the proponents of the bill that the parents’ rights they’re trying to protect are parents who are often negligent or abusive,” said Heather Busby, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas’ executive director, during public testimony on the bill.
Supporters of HB 3994, including an architect of the state’s original judicial bypass process created in 1999, indicated that they believed the process is being abused by untruthful minors looking to get secret abortions behind the backs of their loving parents.
“The parents might be loving, caring parents but the minor is giving testimony to the court to say just the opposite,” testified former Houston Rep. Joe Nixon (R).
Nixon testified that “there are a lot of competing interests the state has to determine here,” and said that “there is the life of the unborn that needs to be protected as well.”
One supporter of HB 3994 testified that she had had an abortion at age 17, and had been inappropriately coached by her lawyer on how to speak to the judicial bypass court.
State Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) challenged HB 3994 supporters throughout the hearing, calling into question state Sen. Van Taylor’s (R-Plano) assertion that “the entire point of the judicial bypass is to take the parent out of the discussion.”
“We’re talking about instances where the parent is not available, the parent has been the abusive person, the parent is on drugs, the parent can’t be found,” Rodriguez said. “There has to be a process by which a minor can give the services that she needs without the parent. That’s what this is all about.”
Opponents of the bill, many of them hotline volunteers for Jane’s Due Process, an Austin-based nonprofit that assists minors throughout the judicial bypass process, read stories of “Janes” with whom the organization has worked.
One witness recounted a story of a teenage girl who was beaten by her father for a late-night phone call, and another testified about a girl whose father was absent and whose mother was addicted to methamphetamine and unable to consent to her daughter’s abortion.
In the same hearing, the Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony on a number of proposed reforms to the state’s troubled and underfunded Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which Republican lawmakers have attempted to privatize in an effort to reduce what the Texas Observer last May called the department’s “deadly problem.”
DFPS reported that “more than one in 20 children killed by abuse or neglect in Texas in the past five years died while in state custody,” according to that magazine’s investigation.
The committee heard emotional testimony from supporters of what has been called “Colton’s Law,” named for 2-year-old Colton Turner, who was found dead in a shallow grave, buried after he suffered a head injury in July 2014 while his parents were able to evade law enforcement even as Child Protective Services searched for them, investigating abuse of the child.
A representative for DFPS appeared before the committee, but was unable to provide committee members with data on the number of endangered children who could be affected, or could not be located by CPS or law enforcement, if reforms to the system are not made, prompting a pointed and frustrated line of questioning from state Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio).
“The [DFPS] commissioner’s not here,” Uresti said to the DFPS representative, gesturing to the empty witness table beside her. “It doesn’t seem like you agree it’s serious.” The DFPS representative promised to return later with the requested data.
The committee left bills heard on Monday pending, and the committee chair said he anticipated taking a vote on the bills Tuesday.