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Texas bill would end the use of trash bags for foster kids' stuff

Aug 26, 2023Aug 26, 2023

Hallie Lively was just 7 when two police officers and a caseworker came to the door.

She was going to foster care. She had five minutes to pack. She took one change of clothes, her Barbie sneakers and a small, white blanket — all tossed into the sack she was given.

A garbage bag.

"That was the only life I knew," Lively, now 35, told me recently. "So being ripped from it was traumatic. And then, ‘Here's your trash bag.’ Like, what?"

Through her Lufkin-based nonprofit Bags of Love, Lively has spent years fundraising and donating duffel bags and backpacks so thousands of other foster kids wouldn't suffer that same indignity. Still, there aren't enough donated bags in a state where 9,623 kids were removed from their homes last year.

This year Lively's cause captured the attention of an Austin-area lawmaker — and now the entire Legislature, which is poised to pass a law ensuring no foster kid is ever given a trash bag for their belongings.

House Bill 3765 would require the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to give a duffel bag or backpack to any child being removed from their home, and to provide a new bag if the child moves again and no longer has the old one.

"I think the story is resonating because it's almost too easy that we can do this," said Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, who sponsored the bill. "So why don't we do this and make an impact in these lives?"

The Texas House passed the bill this past week by a landslide 130-15. Now the bill sits with the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who is carrying the measure in the upper chamber. It's slated for a committee hearing Monday.

"I feel very optimistic that they will move this quickly, and we'll get this bill to the governor's desk," Bucy told me.

Giving foster kids a real bag, not a garbage bag, is such a simple and eminently decent thing to do, one wonders why Texas didn't adopt such a policy years ago.

Blame a lack of awareness about the problem — or the true size of it.

At a committee hearing last month, Associate Commissioner for Child Protective Services Erica Bañuelos said caseworkers "always try to ensure" a child has a real bag when they’re removed from a home.

"I am not aware of any offices that keep a trash bag to give a child to put their belongings in," Bañuelos told the House Human Services Committee on April 18.

But I heard just the opposite from some folks who work with foster parents. Lively hears it, too, from people who reach out to her organization's Facebook page, saying they just received foster kids who came with nothing but a few belongings in a trash bag.

And Bucy heard the same from some staffers and lobbyists at the Capitol, people who also served as foster parents and now applaud HB 3765.

"I had people texting me saying they have foster kids, and their kids showed up with trash bags in the last few years," Bucy said.

I circled back with the Department of Family and Protective Services, and spokesman Mark Wilson told me that most regional offices are "well stocked" with donated bags from organizations like Lively's. But he acknowledged, "These efforts are donation-based, not necessarily a consistent supply chain."

Meaning: Sometimes real bags aren't available.

And no one knows how often a child ends up getting a garbage bag.

HB 3765 aims to change that, too. Caseworkers will be required to document and explain each time a trash bag is used for a child's belongings. An annual report will go to the Legislature.

"The agency wants to say it's not happening," Bucy said. "Well, they're going to get to prove it, because we're going to have them report it when it does happen."

The lack of good data right now also means it's unclear what it will cost the state to provide duffel bags and backpacks. HB 3765 welcomes continued donations from Bags of Love, church groups and other organizations that want to help. The state would just need to make up the difference between the donations and the need.

The Legislative Budget Board put that cost at around $337,500 a year, assuming duffel bags cost $30 apiece. Lively, however, noted she buys her backpacks off Amazon for $5 a pop.

Bucy said he's confident the agency will have the funding needed.

Consistently providing real bags might seem like a small step in a foster care system mired in a decadelong class-action lawsuit over the devastating conditions for some children. But it would be a meaningful improvement that goes beyond the practical matter of helping foster kids keep their stuff.

It sends a message: Their lives matter. Their precious few possessions are not garbage.

They are not castoffs.

Lively grew up in foster care, left another abusive home at age 16, graduated from high school and served in the Navy. Now she has two kids of her own — ages 9 and 4 — and they see her work with Bags of Love, an effort that provided more than 10,000 bags to communities around Texas within a span of four years.

"They don't know the extent of what I’ve been through," Lively said, "but they know these (bags) are for foster kids, or kids that get taken away from their parents, (and) they don't have anything."

Now those kids can start with something.

Grumet is the Statesman's Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at [email protected] or via Twitter at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at