Uresti files bills on foster children's rights, teen smoking, newborns
Sen. Carlos Uresti on Thursday filed three bills designed to enhance the health and safety of Texas children and older teens, including a bill of rights for kids taken from troubled homes and placed in foster care.
The other two bills would raise the legal smoking age in Texas to 19 and provide hearing screenings for newborns.
By pre-filing these measures ahead of the 82nd Legislature, which convenes Jan. 11, Uresti signaled that they will be priorities in his legislative agenda.
Senate Bill 269 would create a Foster Children's Bill of Rights, which would enumerate a child's rights under state and federal law relating to the full range of their care and well being. That includes the right to be free from abuse, neglect, exploitation, discrimination and harassment, and the right to food, clothing, shelter, education and health care.
"Most of the children in foster care were abused, exploited or abandoned by their birth parents," Uresti said. "While they adjust to foster care and learn how to trust again, this bill will clearly lay out all the rights available to them under the law and protect their health, safety and other interests."
The bill would also address rights relating to privacy, health treatment, behavior intervention, placement with siblings and contact with family members, participation in extracurricular or community activities; interactions with teachers, church members and others outside the foster care system, and religious activities.
Senate Bill 268 would raise the legal age to smoke and purchase tobacco products from 18 to 19, which could help break the cycle of tobacco addiction that usually begins in the teenage years.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost one in five Texans age 18 and older are regular smokers -- more than 3.2 million people.
Research has shown that simply delaying access to smoking reduces the risk of adolescents becoming addicted during their most formative years, but that's difficult to do when 18-year-olds can legally purchase cigarettes, then bring them to school and hand them out to their younger friends. In fact, most underage smokers do not purchase cigarettes for themselves. One study revealed around 60 percent get their cigarettes from other sources, and a significant amount has others buy cigarettes for them.
"Raising the smoking age would limit availability to the vast majority of high school students, most of whom have graduated by the time they turn 19," Uresti said. "With this decrease in availability would come a corresponding decrease in accessibility for underage adolescents."
Raising the smoking age would provide other benefits as well. A staggering 503,000 kids currently under 18 in Texas are estimated to die prematurely from cigarette use. And annual healthcare costs in Texas associated with complications from smoking are $5.83 billion, with estimated "productivity losses," which factor in missed work time due to smoking-related illnesses, reaching nearly $7 billion.
Uresti also filed Senate Bill 270, which would require that newborns be screened for hearing-related problems. This bill follows the 2009 passage of Greyson's Law, which expanded the state's newborn screening program from 29 to 49 disorders.
"It's vitally important that we add hearing disorders to the screening list," Uresti said. "The sooner we find out about the health problems of newborns, the less costly and easier they are to treat."
Senator Uresti represents Senate District 19, a 55,000 square mile area extending from the city of San Antonio in Bexar County to the Lower Valley of El Paso County.