State of Texas: Concerns about child trafficking and COVID amid surge of children crossing border

State of Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Unaccompanied migrant children and teens are crossing the border in the thousands. In the past few weeks, this increase in migration has put a strain on resources.

A convention center in Dallas is temporarily hosting 3,000 unaccompanied teen boys. They arrived by bus early Thursday and will be at the site for up to 90 days. Other Texas cities are expected to host migrant children as well.

Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas Republicans say the surge is because of President Biden’s policies. The governor is asking the Biden administration to give Texas law enforcement access to the unaccompanied children in Dallas.

In his first legislative session as governor, Abbott approved nearly $1 billion for border security. A KXAN investigation found that this led to mostly low level arrests in 2014-2016; 6% were felony drug charges and 1% were human trafficking. 

“The state of Texas will always step up and fill in the gaps left open by Washington,” Abbott said.

The Department of Public Safety is now expanding the scope of Operation Lone Star to include human trafficking. Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said this is to protect the migrant families.

“They’re being threatened by the cartels,” McCraw said. “When the cartel says if you talk we’re going to go kill your families, they actually mean that.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Austin) says the Biden administration caused the recent migration surge on day one when they ended a policy that held asylum seekers in their home countries. 

“I think this policy actually, ironically, has encouraged separation of families by allowing these traffickers to take these children, exploit them and then dump them across the river into the United States,” McCaul said.

However, Denise Gilman, direction of the Immigration Clinic at University of Texas, said the Trump administration is actually to blame.

“I would put a lot of the blame on the prior administration dismantling systems therefore making it very difficult to get up to speed as necessary but the Biden administration absolutely need to take very important steps very quickly,” Gilman said.

Sandra Sanchez with says the policy of the United States has always been to accept unaccompanied migrant children regardless of the administration.

“When these children came across, they were accepted,” Sanchez said. “So it’s not actually a fair criticism. This did happen in the Biden. It’s happening in the Biden administration. It happened in the Trump administration.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is making the migration situation worse.

“What’s different this time is the coronavirus pandemic that’s happening, as well as a confluence of events with a new law that took effect in Mexico at the same time that the Biden administration came into office,” Sanchez said. “And this new law said that no young migrant children can be detained in Mexican facilities.”

To help curb the coronavirus from spreading, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is testing the incoming children.

“We can be able to make them safe, make sure that our community safe, make sure that anybody entering to the center is safe,” said Sister Norma Pimentel. “Nobody that enters the bus station or goes to the airport has COVID.”

Regulator’s leaked call raises questions about winter storm profits

The last commissioner on the Public Utility Commission of Texas resigned Tuesday after a report about a leaked phone call was published by Texas Monthly.

Governor Greg Abbott asked for Arthur D’Andrea’s resignation. In the leaked phone call, D’Andrea assured investors he would protect the profits they made off of the power crisis.

The report came as state lawmakers were looking into whether to retroactively change prices charged for electricity in the days after the storm. Industry watchdogs recommended a price correction of close to $5 billion.

On the leaked recording, D’Andrea told investors that he would “put the weight of the commission” behind opposing the repricing proposal.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick addressed the phone call at a news conference on Thursday.

“That kind of talk from a regulator giving favor to private industry, suggesting he has some type of control over the legislature and his job, is the kind of talk that leads to criminal investigations,” Patrick said.

Loren Steffy, writer-at-large for Texas Monthly, broke the story. Steffy has covered the state’s energy industry for decades.

“I think the big takeaway, if you’re a consumer, is that you have no friends in this market and you never have,” Steffy said of the content of the call.

“The winners are the generating companies and the traders that this market was designed to benefit and the losers are the consumers, and the retail providers, and to some extent, the municipal utilities and the co-ops, but lesser so but you know, the retailers are the ones that are filing for bankruptcy,” Steffy said.

‘Betty’s Law’ aims for transparency in urgent care clinics

Jeremy Wattenbarger said things at home are much quieter now after his 7-year-old’s death.

Jeremy Wattenbarger set up an office in his daughter Betty’s bedroom. As he pushes for legislation in Texas, he said he wanted to have her favorite things nearby. (Courtesy Jeremy Wattenbarger)

“One thing she really loved — being autistic — was music, classical music, especially Bach, Beethoven. We can’t even listen to it anymore. It’s too hard,” he explained. 

Wattenbarger said Betty died Jan. 31, 2019 from flu complications. He said according to her autopsy report it was caused by pneumonia and sepsis, which is the body’s severe response to an infection.

The family said they had called her pediatrician and were told to take her to a pediatric urgent care near Dallas-Fort Worth. 

Wattenbarger explained that he thought Betty was being treated by a doctor at the urgent care, but it was actually a nurse practitioner. He said she wasn’t wearing a badge and didn’t introduce herself. 

Wattenbarger acknowledged that he didn’t ask for that information in the moment, either. 

“We would have known that she was an advanced practicing nurse and said, ‘You know what, she probably doesn’t have the skills to see Betty based on … the way she looked that day. The way she was feeling. We would have taken her somewhere else. We would have gotten a second opinion or asked her to call the doctor,” Wattenbarger said. 

The family has been working with State Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, to make changes that could impact that lack of transparency. 

House Bill 2596 or “Betty’s Law,” filed earlier this month, would require healthcare workers providing direct patient care and practicing in freestanding ERs and urgent care clinics to wear a photo identification badge. 

The bill states that the badge must include a first or last name, the department which the healthcare worker is associated with and the type of license held. 

“Although no effort of mine will ever bring justice to this terrible situation, I hope that greater transparency surrounding the healthcare professionals that are practicing in urgent cares and freestanding ERs will allow for patients and their families to make the most informed decisions,” Rep. Patterson said. “As a father of young children, I cannot imagine what this family has endured, but I am thankful for their desire to make a difference.”

According to the bill, if there are violations, then the medical care facility could be fined by the Health and Human Services Commission. 

The bill explained that the amount of penalty imposed may not exceed $1,000 for “each violation, and each day a violation continues or occurs is a separate violation for the purpose of imposing a penalty.”

The attorney general may sue to collect the penalty. 

The Texas Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers, or TAFEC, supports the bill and any measure that increases transparency and protects patients. 

“We checked with many of our TAFEC members and found that 100% of those queried were already in compliance with photo identification badges, just like large hospital ERs,” said Dr. Eric McLaughlin, TAFEC Board Member. 

The Texas Nurses Association, or TNA, said the Nurse Practice Act already has a lot of the requirements detailed in the bill and reported violations can result in disciplinary actions taken by the Texas Board of Nursing. 

“Anyone who identifies themselves as a nurse — whether they are registered nurse, licensed vocational nurse or an advanced practice nurse — they’re still required to adhere to what is already in our Nurse Practice Act,” said Serena Bumpus, Director of Practice for TNA. “They are supposed to identify themselves as one of those titles with any other certifications or credentials that they may have and with their name on it as well.”

Bumpus explained that the big difference in this particular bill is the penalties for the facility. She said they have not heard of any reports of violations across freestanding ERs or urgent cares. 

“There are many policies that exist, specifically hospital policies or organizational policies, that mandate identification requirements. But, by having state policy that’s very clear and transparent, it reduces the variability that you see between institutions and heightens the level of importance and visibility and statutory requirement, in fact, to make sure that individuals wear identification,” explained Dr. Debra Patt, an oncologist and chair of the Council on Legislation for the Texas Medical Association

Dr. Patt said it’s all about transparency and patients should always know who is treating them. 

“We have many members in the health care team, all of whom are incredibly important: nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, physicians/ And, we all play roles, but it’s important to know who you’re dealing with in those roles,” she said. 

The Wattenbarger’s said Betty would be 9-years-old now. They said they hope “Betty’s Law” passes so no other family questions who is treating their loved one. (Courtesy Jeremy Wattenbarger)

Betty’s family explained that it would have helped them make a more informed decision about the care of their daughter. 

“It just gives you an additional, you know, ‘Hey, I know who I’m talking to. I recognize your credentials, but let’s find someone who actually is an expert in what is happening right now,” Wattenbarger said. 

The family has filed a lawsuit against the urgent care and the healthcare workers who treated Betty, alleging medical negligence.

The defendants’ attorney said he does not respond to the media on pending litigation. 

In a legal response to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the family, the defendants deny the allegations stating, “the injuries and damage alleged were not caused by the negligence of any party.”

The court document also said that Betty’s cause of death was due to pre-existing health conditions. 

Investigator Arezow Doost has tried repeatedly to reach the urgent care and the nurse practitioner, but calls have yet to be returned. 

The supervising doctor for the nurse practitioner told Doost he had no comment. 

‘Heartbeat Bill’ moves closer to vote in Texas Senate

Before the legislative session started, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick vowed to put a priority on anti-abortion legislation. This week a Senate committee pushed several of those bills closer to a vote, including Senate Bill 8, also known as the ‘heartbeat bill.’

The bill would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. That can come as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

SB8 has an exception for medical emergencies. There is no exception for cases of rape or incest.

The bill would also allow for private civil enforcement actions by any person. That would let anyone sue an abortion provider if that person believes they’ve violated the law. The person suing would not need to have a connection to the provider or to someone who had an abortion.

The bill now goes to the full Senate, where it’s expected to pass.

“Since the chamber is controlled by Republicans, I don’t think there’s any visible barrier from this legislation passing the Senate,” explained Cassandra Pollock, State Politics Reporter for The Texas Tribune.

If the bill clears the Senate, it would then need approval from the House.

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