Sherry Sylvester

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9th Street And Congress

Every parent should read ‘Gender Queer’

In virtually every news report of parents demanding that public school librarians do their job and remove inappropriate or pornographic materials from school libraries, the book Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe is at the top of the objectionable titles list. So many librarians and school board members are defending the book that I figured I should read it. Since the Texas Education Association just released guidelines for library acquisitions that include parental monitoring, every Texas parent should probably read it too.

Gender Queer is an autobiographical graphic novel chronicling the first 30 years of Kobabe’s life, focusing on the difficulties she faced being a girl. Being a girl is no walk in the park, but what is striking about Kobabe’s story is that she determines early on that there is no path forward for her as a female.

As she tells her story of growing up, her parents have only cameo roles and are portrayed as self-absorbed hippies. She has siblings, but there’s no close family, there’s no community, no faith or church, no mentors at school. She says she is suffering from gender dysphoria — she wants to be a boy — but at no point does she or anyone in her family mention counseling or a medical consultation.

She believes she was arbitrarily assigned her female gender at birth, and she is convinced it was a mistake. She reports that as a child, she finally found her true self by reading pornography and stories by people who were also gender dysphoric.

Adults who define themselves as something other than straight or gay represent about 1% of the population, but almost everyone Maia comes into contact with in her book defines themselves this way.

She describes herself as nonbinary for a while, but the term apparently wasn’t unique enough for her. (Some say so many teenagers are using it that it has become the new “goth.”) At age 29, Kobabe decides to call herself “gender queer,” which will probably stick, since her book with that title is now a bestseller (due to the controversy it has caused).

The book includes graphic and gross descriptions of sex and masturbation. Any reasonably competent school librarian should be able to see in an instant that it is not appropriate for a public school library. Nevertheless, it has been found in schools all over Texas. Parents in a number of Texas towns, including Prosper and Keller , have demanded that it be removed.

Last week, the National Coalition Against Censorship joined most of the state’s newspaper editorial pages in chastising Texas parents for demanding that these kinds of books be taken out of public school libraries. The NCAC alleges the parents are “censoring books and denying students the well-rounded education that is essential to preserving a healthy democracy.”

They can’t be serious. Clearly, they have not read Gender Queer. Whether the book is pornographic is up for debate, as pornography always is. But there is no censorship here. Determining what kinds of books are in public school libraries paid for by taxpaying parents is very different than saying Gender Queer shouldn’t be in any library. No one is saying that.

Parents should read this book for two reasons: first, to see what not to do when rearing adolescents. Kobabe’s story includes so many opportunities for her parents to intervene and help, but they never do. Instead, she is given carte blanche approval to pursue a quest that ultimately can lead to dangerous puberty blockers and surgery and put her at higher risk for suicide.

It is no accident that Black Lives Matter advocates getting rid of nuclear families altogether so that children will not be hindered from saying they are boys when they are girls and vice versa. These activists insist that “everyone should choose if they are a boy or a girl or both or neither.”

Parents should read the book to be aware of how their children are being indoctrinated into phony notions of gender fluidity. Ridiculous terms such as “assigned female at birth” and “nonbinary” have become normalized in our schools.

But even kindergartners understand that sex is binary — boys are boys, and girls are girls. That’s apparently why there has been such blowback in Florida over legislation to stop the teaching of homosexuality and gender identity to children aged 3 through 7.

Again, they can’t be serious.

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9th Street And Congress

Texas Rules for Mail-in Ballots Are Working

Calls from the left and the media to repeal the updated rules for mail-in ballots are predictable. They opposed requiring photo voter identification to vote too. The attack on the reforms to mail-in ballot rules defy the data—and common sense.

First, the numbers. Opponents of the new law highlight that over 12% of mail-in ballots were rejected in the last primary election. That sounds high until you consider that more than 3 million people voted, making those rejected mail-in ballots less than 1% of all ballots cast.

But even that would overstate the problem, because the Texas law requires officials to work with voters to try to reconcile rejected ballots. Famously, Willie Nelson’s initial ballot was rejected, which he then reportedly fixed and resubmitted. There are surely others who did the same.

Additionally, once a voter received word their ballot was rejected, they could have decided to vote in person instead. We don’t know how many did, but while opponents of the law are attempting to claim that “confusing new rules” were responsible for large numbers of supposedly disenfranchised voters, the truth is that even if there was some initial confusion, it only affected a tiny fraction of votes cast. There is no reason to repeal the new law.

And now for some common sense. Elections have rules because without them we cannot trust the results. The two most basic rules for ensuring election integrity are that voters must demonstrate they are who they say they are and that they are eligible to vote in the election. Most voters do this by voting in person and showing an election worker a photo identification card that has both the voter’s picture and address on it, verifying identity and eligibility.

Mail-in ballots are inherently less secure. There is no way to guarantee that the ballot was received or filled out by the voter who applied for it. The identity protections for mail-in ballots that existed before the new law, such as matching signatures, proved meaningless.

A system in which some votes are verified and others are not is unacceptable. That’s why the Legislature was compelled to act last year. Texas has strong protections and relatively easy procedures for voting in person. Now the same is true for mail-in ballots.

Not only is this common sense, but the new measures are supported by the vast majority of Texans. In polls taken during the debate over the new rules last year, 89% of Texans said they support photo voter ID and 81% said voting in person and by mail should have the same voter identification requirements.

Every rejected ballot is one that couldn’t prove voter identity and/or eligibility. The increased number of rejected mail-in ballots is evidence that the law is working to prevent the inclusion of unverified and potentially fraudulent votes, which protects the legitimacy of election results, just as Texans want.

Do voters make honest mistakes? Of course. But there’s a process for reconciling mistakes for mail-in voters who neglect to put their address or even their own name on a mail-in ballot.

Texas voters don’t buy that the updated rules are too “confusing.” Fully 80% agree mail-in ballots should include either the identification number of a valid government ID or a partial Social Security number.

In the March primary, over 99% of voters were able to understand the rules and vote successfully without issue. For the tiny fraction of those who didn’t, there’s a process for making it right. Texas’ election reforms strengthen protections for every ballot and improve confidence in election results. It’s a better system that clearly works.

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9th Street And Congress

Opinion: Texas fails victims of sex trafficking. Overhaul child welfare services now.

By Sherry SylvesterAndrew C. Brown, J.D.|April 27, 2022This commentary was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.

Texans were horrified to learn of the Department of Family and Protective Services’ mishandling of allegations that children in its care were sexually exploited at a shelter intended to protect victims of sex trafficking. In the weeks since the story made it clear that DFPS has broken its promise to children to take them to a place that is safer than the place where they were in, the Texas House and Senate convened emergency hearings to get to the bottom of what happened, as did the judge overseeing the decade-old federal lawsuit against the state’s foster care system.

This outrage is just the latest in a long line of heartbreakingavoidable incidents that are rooted in organizational dysfunction and a toxic internal culture. Private providers, foster parents and even its own employees have described the department’s approach to internal management and external oversight as “punitive,” “crisis-driven,” fear-based, and lacking a unifying vision and clear guiding principles.

This toxicity permeates the organization, rendering it utterly incapable of protecting the children in its care. And it’s resistant to change. Efforts at reforming the department have either been ignored, delayed or poorly implemented.

The problems plaguing DFPS have been well-known for at least a decade. In 2011, Texas was sued in federal court on behalf of children in its permanent care. The lawsuit alleged that conditions in the state-run foster care system were so bad that they violated the constitutional rights of the children. In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Janis Graham Jack ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that children in the custody of the department routinely leave more damaged than when they entered. As part of her ruling, Jack required the state to comply with a series of remedial orders intended to fix the problems with the system.

Following Judge Jack’s ruling, the Texas Legislature got to work enacting reforms to give the department the tools needed to turn things around. In 2017, the Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 11, which laid out a blueprint for reform, including standards that should have prevented anything like this from ever happening. For example, the legislation sought to increase accountability for DFPS and providers on delivering optimal outcomes for children, establish a quality assurance framework, strengthen standards for child protective services investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect, and improve monitoring of DFPS contractors.

SB 11 represented a fundamental transformation of the Texas child welfare system designed to make it safer and more responsive to the unique needs of children, while increasing the role of local communities in caring for their most vulnerable.

Yet, nearly five years after the bill was signed into law, it has yet to be fully implemented.

In response to DFPS all but completely ignoring the Legislature, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst passed Senate Bill 1896 to address continuing safety problems within the foster care system and spur the full implementation of past reforms. Again, the Legislature has been ignored.

Gov. Abbott made foster care an emergency item during the 85th Legislature, including it on the call for multiple special sessions, convening workgroups and directly ordering the commissioners of both DFPS and the Health and Human Services Commission to comply with the remedial orders. Yet DFPS remains entrenched in the same cycles of failure.

More funding is routinely touted as the solution to the problems plaguing the Texas foster care system but the data show substantially increasing funding for DFPS has not been a path to positive outcomes for foster children.

The Legislature has increased the department’s budget by more than $800 million since 2015 and has authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in additional emergency appropriations during that same period. The problems have only gotten worse.

A major focus of this infusion of cash has been increasing caseworker salaries to reduce turnover and maintain manageable caseloads. In late 2016, the Legislature approved an emergency request by DFPS for $150 million to immediately raise caseworker annual salaries by $12,000 and hire an additional 829 employees. After the investment, staff turnover dramatically decreased in 2017 and caseloads began coming down. However, these gains proved short-lived. Staff turnover began increasing again in 2018 and spiked to its highest rate in a decade by 2021. While it’s likely the pandemic played some role in that spike, it doesn’t explain why in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the percentage of staff turnover was about the same as the turnover percentage in 2019. Clearly, infusing more money into a broken system isn’t the answer.

There is one promising solution that has been recommended for years but hasn’t been attempted yet. It calls for a complete reorganization of DFPS, with a focus on transforming the agency’s management and culture. This recommendation has been repeated by numerous outside experts hired by the state to provide guidance on ending the crisis.

In 2014, for example, the Stephen Group noted that “the missing key ingredient” was a “unifying vision that clearly defines success and demonstrates how to get there.” A 2016 progress report on the implementation of the Stephen Group’s recommendations found that while some progress was being made, the department was struggling to embed changes into practice and had yet to develop a positive culture of transformation and excellence. Earlier this year, an expert panel report published in connection with the ongoing federal lawsuit stated the need for leadership to “immediately adopt and apply a set of shared values and principles” and work to rebuild relationships between the department and service providers.

The latest scandal sparked immediate action from legislative leaders. Within 24 hours of the story breaking, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick established the Senate Special Committee on Child Protective Services. The special committee is tasked with investigating the department’s continual failures and putting all options on the table to transform the agency.

That’s a good start. If it follows through with this directive, the special committee has the opportunity to bring long-overdue change to DFPS and enable Texas to once again keep its promise to the state’s most vulnerable children.