Texas CASA Spotlight: Bryan Mares

Bryan Mares, Public Policy Fellow, is a dedicated advocate for Texas children and families. By testifying and advocating for Texas CASA’s legislative priorities at the Texas Capitol, Bryan helps improve laws and policies affecting the child welfare system. Bryan received his bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work from Texas State University. Before coming to Texas CASA, much of Bryan’s work focused on mental health and substance use disorders among children, along with health and education policy.

Tell us about your background.

I, like some social workers, did not pursue the direct services route. I decided to pursue policy, or what we call in the field, macro-level social work. I was introduced to policy through an internship at the state senate. I was a legislative intern there a semester and then went off to grad school. For my graduate school internship I worked with another nonprofit that focused on children’s issues, however my scope at the time was not around child welfare. I found Texas CASA’s fellowship and was drawn to it because I had heard a lot of amazing things about the organization.

What brought you to Texas CASA?

What brought me to Texas CASA was the opportunity to learn about a new population that I hadn’t worked with before. I knew nothing about child welfare or the foster care system in Texas, and I figured I would give it a try and see how I liked it compared to my other work.

Tell us about your role here.

My official title is Public Policy Fellow. My focus is on policy that affects STAR Health and Medicaid for kids in foster care.

I also focus on a lot of substance use policy issues. Right now, there’s been a lot of legislation focusing on how we can really grow our resources and expand our network of providers, services and treatments for individuals with substance use disorder. My role has an emphasis on the effects and prevalence of parental substance use that leads to CPS involvement. I do some work on mental health issues since it is tied to substance use as well. Also, I’m focusing on youth in care and their access to quality mental and general healthcare services along with best practices for treatment of certain mental health conditions.

How is mental health considered during the foster care process?

I’ll speak to a child’s mental health first: When a child enters foster care, or the state’s conservatorship, they undergo what is called a 3 in 30 exam – three tests within the first 30 days of their time in care. One of these is a mental health assessment called the CANS assessment, which stands for the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths Assessment. The assessment is used to develop a service plan and understand the needs of the child so that the caseworkers can provide the child access to certain services that will provide mental health treatment, therapy or just general health care services. It’s done once a month to ensure that there is progress in the child’s mental health and service plan.

Related to adult mental health and parents’ mental health: We know that there are a number of families and parents that may struggle with a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness that goes untreated. That can often lead to parental neglect or abuse. We need to make sure, as CASA volunteers and as attorneys ad litem, that parents are getting treatment so that they are able to reunify with their child.

Is Texas CASA supporting legislation that promotes mental health consideration?

Yes! We had a couple of bills that emphasized how we can support children and families with services to meet their mental health needs. One of those bills was Senate Bill 2110 by Senator Watson. It would ensure that youth in Texas that have aged out of care would have their Medicaid health coverage, which they have until the age of 26, automatically renewed annually. We want to make sure the annual renewal process is simpler by directing the state agency to develop this auto-renewal process so that these kids don’t lose their coverage. Often times we’ve seen that the state will mail their renewal packets to their last known placement and usually they’re no longer living there. If the state gets the mail returned to them, then the child is cut off from their health coverage. So for a child who turns 18, one year later they’re about to be 19 and need to renew their coverage. That child may not even know that they’re eligible to be insured at no cost because of this program. The 1,200 kids in Texas that age out each year are at much higher risk than children that have been adopted, not to minimize their mental health needs. The kids that have aged out are at a much higher risk of developing a substance use disorder, becoming homeless, having poor academic outcomes and poor health outcomes. Unfortunately, Senate Bill 2110 did not make it through the legislative process, though it had support.  So we most likely will be putting that on our 2021 legislative agenda.

I think for the 1,200 kids that age out each year, it’s incredibly important that we provide them with as many supports as we can to ensure that they can access services and avoid a path of poor health outcomes. In addition to that, we keep our eye out for any legislation that supports mental health or substance use treatment for families and children involved with CPS or foster care. It was one of our planks in our legislative priorities for this session.

What does the future of your work look like?

I think the future of my work is going to be largely based on what was and was not accomplished this legislative session. I think that I will be devoting a lot of my time to working with state agencies, lawmakers and other pertinent stakeholders to review policies that have room for improvement related to well-being for kids in foster care, better outcomes and reunification with the bio-family. During the interim, I think we’ll be working on training for trauma-informed care and educating the network on what happened during the legislative session and what changes can we expect to child welfare based on those outcomes.

What does CASA mean to you?

CASA to me means supporting children through the local programs in a systemic way. CASA to me means our top directors here working with local programs to provide quality assurance, and providing financial support to ensure that our programs have everything they need to operate effectively. In addition to that, what we do in the Public Policy Department is going beyond and working at the state legislative level on issues that affect kids in foster care and the kids that CASAs serve. CASA to me means supporting children in a number of ways that we are constantly looking to grow and expand on.

Check out our other Texas CASA staff spotlights!