Friday, January 23, 2015

Government Shortcomings: How Texas Child Protective Services Fails to Protect Children

Over a year ago, I wrote an article about the tragic death of Alexandria Hill, who died of injuries she received at the home of her foster mother after being taken from her parents by the Texas Child Protective Services. I had thought that this was a terrible anomaly, some unfortunate bout of mismanagement that had led to a rare tragic outcome. I had hoped desperately that this was in no way indicative of a larger problem that placed foster children in danger. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The Austin American-Statesman published a report this month that reveals startling statistics about the deaths of hundreds of Texas children. According to Texas law, Child Protective Services is not required to publicly report abuse- and neglect-related deaths “if caseworkers decide that mistreatment did not directly cause those fatalities”.

The Statesman report reveals that between 2010 and 2015, 655 child fatalities were not publicly reported, despite the fact that CPS confirmed the children had been abused or mistreated prior to their death. However, since CPS ruled that the mistreatment did not directly cause the death, they are not required to release the information to state legislators or the general public.

In 2009, a bill, authored by State Senator Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), was passed requiring CPS to publicly report all child deaths related to mistreatment, abuse or neglect. While the bill was a good step toward CPS reform in theory, inconsistent assessments have led to many cases continuing to go unreported. The Statesman report shows that:
In some cases, for example, the state has assigned blame for co-sleeping or drowning deaths, meaning the fatality was at least partially caused by negligence or abuse. Those go on the publicly reported list. But numerous child deaths that occurred under similar circumstances are kept off the public list, with little explanation.

Furthermore, even those reports that are filed are not reviewed, either by the state or child welfare advocates.

Proper review of this data would be able to reveal trends and patterns that could be used to identify high-risk situations. The analysis done in the Statesman report showed several key places where this data could have been useful to CPS, and should be useful to them going forward.

    ·         The agency has not comprehensively tracked how often it saw children before they died of abuse or neglect — a key predictor of potential problems. Of the 779 deaths reviewed by the newspaper, the families of 374 of those children — nearly half — were visited by CPS at least once before the death. In 144 fatalities, or nearly 20 percent, the agency had seen the family at least three times. In 12 instances, CPS had seen the family 10 or more times. CPS had contact with one family more than 20 times before the child died.

    ·         Even though the agency has a unit dedicated to finding missing families, at least 15 kids died after they dropped off CPS’s radar.

    ·         In 166 cases — a little more than 1 of every 5 reviewed by the paper — a child previously had been separated from a caretaker because of safety concerns prior to the fatality. In 41 of those instances, it was the same child who later died.

    ·         Unlike some other states, Texas has not undertaken a detailed analysis of the child deaths to identify families that are at the greatest risk of hurting a child, and the state has not used that information to prevent tragedies.

Missed signs seem to be a recurring theme in many of these cases. One of the more extreme instances is that of Brandon White, who was killed by his mother’s boyfriend in 2013. Child Protective Services had been receiving calls reporting that Brandon was in danger since 1999. A total of 23 complaints were filed to CPS regarding the neglect and abuse Brandon received at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Still, Brandon remained in the home until his murder. He was 15.

The article points out that child protection is a balancing act. Not intervening in a potentially unsafe household can result in the injury or death of a child. But too many interventions, or too strict judgments can violate the rights of parents. John Specia, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, stated:

We can’t remove every child that has a bruise. Every incident does not, should not, result in children being removed from homes. We need to make the right decision. Where you can provide services and make that home a safe place for the child, that’s the right thing to do.

Of course, he is correct. No one wants to see overall healthy families torn apart because of one incident that could be perceived as a danger. However, there are certain signs that a case is much more serious than a single domestic disturbance and requires further review. The newspaper’s analysis found that nearly half of the children who died were already on CPS’ radar. Of those 374 fatalities, 144 families — nearly 40 percent — had been the subject of a CPS investigation at least three times. The article went on to list several other examples of cases where missed warning signs resulted in a child’s death.

Overlooking warning signs and failing to review cases are unacceptable shortcomings of the Texas CPS system. Its job is to protect children, and in many cases, it is clear that they are dropping the ball. However, the Austin American-Statesman report reveals something even more disturbing than ineptitude; it has proven dishonesty and willful misdirection on the part of many CPS employees.

CPS officials are often burdened with more cases than they can handle and placed under pressure to close cases quickly. Unfortunately, some employees respond by cutting corners in their work. Even more disturbing are the incidents of employees falsifying documentation to conceal the fact that they are not doing their jobs. In May of 2015, Texas CPS employee Michelle Robinson was assigned to investigate the case of a 15 year old girl who reported to her school nurse that her father was abusing her. Her paperwork stated that she had spoken with multiple people during the course of her investigation, but in reality, several of the interviews had been falsified. One of the people to whom she actually did speak reports that Robinson "wasn't writing anything down and made me feel very uneasy. She wasn't taking notes, she wasn't recording." Robinson fabricated an investigation to please her bosses, then turned her back on the child she was charged to defend. When her crime was uncovered, she was tried and sentenced to 1 year’s probation and a $300 fine.

Like so many of the problems discussed in the Statesman report, this is not an isolated incident. The report found that at least 50 CPS workers have been caught lying to prosecutors, ignoring court orders, falsifying state records or obstructing law enforcement investigations” since 2009. Although this number is small compared to the 3,400 employees in the agency, it is more than enough to warrant concern. Furthermore, that is only the number of people who have been caught.

Texas CPS does not keep a comprehensive list of the employees who were fired for these sorts of offenses. It also does not track the number or employees who were disciplined for misconduct, but not fired. Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, told Statesman reporters that this data is only stored in employees’ personal files, and therefore cannot be catalogued.

Cases such as the tragic story of Alexandria Hill and comprehensive reports such as the one published by the Austin American-Statesman have led to a rise in public consciousness regarding the activities of Child Protective Services. The Texas legislature resumed its sessions last week and State Senator Carlos Uresti has said that addressing the shortcomings of the CPS is high on his agenda.

Hopefully, Texas CPS will be able to learn from its mistakes and provide better assistance for at-risk youth. But this is only the beginning of a long journey toward making sure children are safe and protected in America. It is wonderful that Texas is in for some positive change. But what about other states? Surely, these incidents of missed signals, letting people fall through the cracks, and outright misconduct are not confined to the Lone Star State. While Texas works to fix the problems it has identified, other states should conduct reviews of their own Child Protective Services.

Protecting citizens from harm is perhaps the most important function of government. By the very nature of their developmental existence, and by the legal constraints regarding age that our society has constructed, children are a population that are at great risk and have limited means of self defense. A government that cannot protect children, and in some cases actually places children in harm’s way, needs to be closely evaluated and quickly improved.
The full text of the Statesman report can be read online here:

1 comment:

  1. Did you notice that Alex Hill was not even listed in the Statesman report?