AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County Judge Darlene Byrne has dozens of stuffed animals in her office.
“They are not for me, these are for the young people I serve on my docket,” she says.
Judge Byrne’s court docket is full of children removed by Child Protective Services and in need of foster care. Finding them a safe home is one challenge, but Judge Byrne is seeing another.
“Just because they are foster kids, they should do extracurricular activities just as if they were in their own mom and dad’s home,” she says.
In 2014, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas helped pass the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which in part helps promote normalcy for foster youth.
Passing the bill is one thing, but funding it is another, leaving it up to courts like Judge Byrne’s to figure it out. “We are working really hard in providing enrichment activities to all of our foster youth — enrichment activities they have a voice in selecting,” she says.
The judge is doing that by asking for donation and help from organizations. “There are an array of nonprofits, Fostering Angels is one nonprofit, Partnerships for Children is [another], and we have what we call a child welfare board, which is kind of an arm of Travis county government,” the judge said.
“Those three entities are kinda the sweet spot in our community through which funding comes so we can support a child who needs a football uniform or needs to have a football physical to pay to get on football or for cheerleading activities, prom dresses, music, martial arts. You name it,” Byrne said.
“We don’t try to limit it to be a cookie cutter program, we want it to be something that speaks to the child.”
While it is federal law to help foster children get into an enrichment activity, it’s not easy for all judges to make it a reality, given limited resources. That’s why Judge Byrne’s courtroom is considered a model for other judges around the country and helps a foster child see themselves in a different way.
“You know they can define who they are in a different way than ‘I’m just a foster kid’, I’m not just a foster kid. I’m a kid that plays the violin and I performed this weekend for my family and my friends,'” the judge explained. “So what we are trying to do is allow them to define themselves in their best positive light to enrich their lives so that this isn’t their defining moment being a foster kid.”
To support the program Judge Byrne encourages people to visit the websites for the three nonprofits listed in this article: Foster Angels of Central Texas, Partnerships for Children and the Texas Council of Child Welfare Boards.