The Harris County Commissioners Court dedicated $7.9 million in federal funds for several early childhood programs to help children in the foster care system, new parents and families needing access to in-home child care.

Of the federal funding supplied by the American Rescue Plan, $4.6 million will go to the upWORDS program at Texas Children’s Hospital; $2.4 will be dedicated for nonprofit First3Years’ Safe Babies Approach; and about $906,000 will grow The Alliance for Home-Based Child Care Supports.

The motion for these programs passed in a 3-2 vote on Feb. 22 at the commissioners’ monthly meeting, with Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey dissenting.

“Nothing matters more than really creating a real environment, a quality environment, especially for those families who are at or below the poverty level,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

The next steps to be taken in TCH’s upWORDS program will be building the “Community-Based Universal and Targeted Intervention Model,” according to a Feb. 22 press release from the Harris County judge’s office. This program is expected to serve more than 20,000 children and train more than 6,000 educators over the span of three years by providing needed resources and materials to new parents, including maternal mental health support.

The First3Years program is expected to help 300 young children in the foster care system over the next three years, according to the Feb. 22 press release. Needed materials will be provided for the children to reduce increases in child abuse and neglect seen during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to Sara Mickelson, who serves as Harris County’s director of early childhood initiatives.

“This program will bring together foster parents and birth parents to support their developmental needs around being great parents to babies and toddlers ... ultimately with the path to unifying families again back out of the foster care system,” Mickelson said.

The final initiative, from The Alliance, aims to add 200 child care jobs in 23 licensed programs, adding child care opportunities in low- and moderate-income areas of Harris County.

These programs should help low-income families and provide opportunities that could prevent future issues, such as crime, county leaders said.

“If our predecessors here had made investments like this long before we got here, some of those issues that we're dealing with today, with people who are in the criminal justice system, in all likelihood, we would not have to deal with," Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. "So it really is a wise investment.”

Before voting no, Cagle expressed he would prefer the Harris County Department of Education or local school boards fund these initiatives.

“I'm [voting] no, not because I think that educating our children and the next generation is a bad thing,” Cagle said. “I just don't think that's what our job is. Our job is to take care of some basics. And we are complaining about not having enough money for the basics.”

As part of the Feb. 22 consent agenda, commissioners also approved a $20,000 donation from national funding collaborative Home Grown to be used for home child care.

“It's just crucial,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “And whether it's the low-income kids who can't afford child care, or the folks who can afford it, but there's simply no child care slots, quality slots. This is a need that has to be met, and the truth is nobody else is meeting it to the extent that it needs to be met.