7 Minutes to Live: Crisis in the child protective service courts

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Too many cases of child abuse and too little time to make a life or death decision. KXAN News found Travis County judges have less than 10 minutes on cases involving abused and neglected children. Cases like 11 month old Orien Hamilton, who died recently in the foster care system. Her skull was allegedly crushed by an unmonitored visitor to her caretaker’s Cedar Park home.

“I get angry with myself. I get angry with the system,” says Judge Darlene Byrne. She is one of three judges overlooking the Child Protective Services docket in Travis County. Recently, two children on Byrne’s docket died, including baby Orien.

“Had I had more time? Maybe I would have asked the right question to assess the safety of that home, I don’t know? But I know I didn’t have enough time,” she says.

A mother herself, Byrne has been on the bench in the Travis County 126th Judicial District Court since 2001. She extremely passionate and dedicated to her children at home and on her docket, “I’m a mom of three kids and I’m so honored to be their mom. I also consider myself the mom of every kid on my docket,” says Byrne. She often spends hours on the weekends off the bench pouring over her massive caseload knowing lives of children depend on her in the courtroom.

Not Enough Time

When CPS, removes a child from a home, a judge decides where to place that child: back home, foster care or with a relative. A KXAN investigation shows those abused and neglected kids are being rushed through the court system because of a massive caseload, lack of time and funding. Each week, Byrne says she has a stack of 30 to 40 files full of allegations of abused and neglected kids. One by one, on the bench, Byrne quickly sorts through the case details and her thoughts with only a few minutes to decide where to place each child.

“When I rule, when I sign my name on this order, do I have absolute confidence that where that baby is going to lay his head down tonight is a safe, stable loving nurturing home?” That is just one question Byrne asks herself and has to answer in a short amount of time.

Travis county judges only have time to spend on average 7-10 minutes on the bench for each CPS hearing. The national recommendation by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is 30-60 minutes per CPS hearing. The lack of time has to do with an increasing caseload in Travis County showing no signs of slowing down. Five years ago, there were an average 23 CPS cases filed each month. In 2014, it’s nearly doubled to 41 as detailed here in a presentation given during Travis County budget hearing.

“You go to the child’s funeral. It will break your heart”

Judge Lora Livingston addressed Travis County Commissioners in a passionate plea for more funding for child courts.

“I want you to know at this point, these are not just kids at risk. We all hear about children at risk. These are kids well beyond at risk. These are kids currently in crisis,” she said.

Judge Livingston and Byrne asked commissioners for nearly $500,000 to hire an associate judge and four staff members to hear more CPS cases and allowing more time spent on each hearing.

“We definitely need more time. There is no doubt about it, we need more time,” says Byrne.

With recent deaths in the foster care system such as two year old Colton Turner whose body was found in a South Austin field, Byrne fears what may happen again if something doesn’t change

“I worry about that. It’s not lost on anyone that we’ve had deaths in Texas in the child welfare system,” Byrne said. “That is my worst nightmare. It is my worst nightmare. When it happens and it has happened in the past two years and few kids on my watch. The very first thing I do after I cry a little bit is you go in and you start assessing the file what could we have done differently, what did we need to do. You go to the child’s funeral. It will break your heart.”

Time is Money

Following several weeks of budget crunches and hearings, Travis County Commissioners for the first time in almost two decades agreed to hire an associate judge. The new associate judge and three staff members will allow time for 18 minutes per CPS hearing. The time frame is better than the current window but only half the national recommendation.

KXAN News asked Judge Sam Biscoe – who approved the Travis County budget if 18 minutes is acceptable.

“It’s acceptable today but I think we have to keep working to improve it,” said Biscoe who approved the budget. “Our challenge is to spend each dollar as effectively as possible, the end result is that we want these kids treated fairly but as quickly as possible.”

Upon approving the funding, commissioners wanted to know why more money isn’t coming from the state level to ease the caseload. KXAN News asked that question to the top official at the state department of family and protective services — a judge himself.

“That’s a decision that needs to be made by the legislature,”  says Judge John Specia. “We need to have enough judges with sufficiently small dockets to have the time and energy and spend the time and energy on these cases,”

The funding issue is already on the minds of state lawmakers with the death of Colton Turner. Last month, the state admitted it failed to protect the Austin boy after repeated reports he could be in danger. KXAN News has learned judges state wide and caseloads will be the focus a new study starting in January.

“The Office of Court Administration and the Children’s Commission will join forces to work on a case load study to assess the time being spent on CPS cases” says Children’s Commison Executive Director Tina Amberboy. The Children’s Commission recently published an analysis of Texas child welfare hearings.

Byrne says she’s thankful for the funding from Travis County commissioners for another judge and staff and is hopeful she will never have to go to a another child’s funeral ever again.

“It’s shameful and we need to be doing better for our kids,” she added.

KXAN News will follow up on lawmakers’ actions with the system in the next legislative session this January. If you have something you want us to investigate, email us at ReportIt@KXAN.com.

MORE RESOURCES: http://www.txcourts.gov/

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