AUSTIN (KXAN) – As Central Texas parents and child safety advocates wait for the justice system to reveal more in the New Year about how two year-old Colton Turner died last summer, a group of Texas lawmakers is calling for increased stability in the way the state’s child protection system operates.
“Make no mistake, the safety and well-being of Texas children is vital not only to their own well-being, but also to the future success of the state,” said Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Pflugerville) who chaired the Select House Committee on Child Protection and the Protect our Kids Commission. Last May Dukes and eight other lawmakers were tasked with studying the incidence of abuse and neglect fatalities in Texas and making recommendations to protect children for the 84th legislative session.
In 2013, records from the Texas Division of Child and Protective Services (CPS) show 156 deaths of abused or neglected children in Texas. Nearly half had a history with CPS and a third were connected to an open CPS investigation at the time of their death, according to the Committee’s Report. Five were in Travis County. Of those 156 fatalities, 59 percent were due to neglect and 41 percent to abuse. Abuse-related deaths can be caused by blunt force trauma, stabbing or suffocation while neglect includes drowning, unsafe sleep or inattention to a child’s health concerns.
Preliminary 2014 numbers for preventable child deaths were at 149, according to the Committee Report which cited Texas DFPS data.
Select Committee Recommendations
The House Select Committee’s Interim (between legislative sessions) Report recommends:
- increasing accountability within CPS (not punishing staff)
- staff retention efforts including merit-based promotions, salary based on location, reducing workloads
- strengthen tracking and location efforts of alleged child victims so they’re not overlooked
- emphasizing the importance of abuse prevention and intervention programs
- expanding community-based programs for high-risk populations
Committee Chair Rep Dawnna Dukes (D-Pflugerville) said in a release “The recommendations are designed to strengthen child protection without overburdening a system already under a considerable amount of review and transformation.”
The Select Committee’s report is one of several child protection reviews produced this year. Among them: May’s Sunset Advisory Commission Report of the Department of Family and Protective Services under which CPS is a part.
Also there was an outside consultant’s report in June from the Stephens Group that produced a strategy to improve the internal workings of CPS.
Both reviews recommended sweeping reforms at CPS to ensure better management, less bureaucratic clutter and more mentoring of new casework staff all to limit turnover and enhance staff retention.
Earlier in December, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee (a panel of lawmakers overseeing that Department’s operations and chaired by Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner (R)) agreed to support the recommendations of both those reports – including a plan to update the agency’s aging computer management system with one allowing case workers in the field as well as law enforcement and court staff to access it.
Finally, the Committee recommended merging the operations of five HHSC agencies including DFPS in one. It’s a bid to remove what one lawmaker this year called the blurred lines of accountability.
Colton Turner death
Cedar Park Rep. Tony Dale (R) also sits on the Committee and has indicated proposed legislation is forthcoming when lawmakers resume their work in the New Year, Dale’s home city is the same Central Texas community where police detectives in September, were tipped off to photos on Meagan Work’s Facebook page showing a bruised Colton. Those detectives were able to track Meagan Work, Colton’s mother down hours later – a task CPS case workers were unable to earlier in the summer.
A subsequent internal CPS review revealed a lack of follow up in the case, resulting in the firing three staff including a program director. A newly developed Child Safety Action Plan aims to reduce child deaths in Texas to zero in 2015.
Advocates from a child welfare policy agency whose advocates testified before the House Committee on Child Protection last summer suggest CPS caseworkers need a manageable caseload that allows them to spend quality time with kids. While admitting throwing tax dollars at the agency to hire more caseworkers or pay them more is not the sole approach, it helps.
“We have to be strategic about how else are we going to support the CPS workforce, said Ashley Harris with Texans Care for Children. “We know it’s not just about money. CPS caseworkers don’t come to CPS because of the money so that’s not going to be the only solution.
“With CPS Transformation, it’s not just about putting recommendations forward, but really putting forward a road map about how you get to those proposed solutions. And one of those biggest pieces, is (financial) investment. Without investment these recommendations and these changes CPS would like to see, they’re not going to move forward. And not only that, they’re not going to be sustainable.”
OIG Report still not published
Some observers in the child care industry have called into question the timing of the decision to fire CPS workers in the light of the discovery of Colton Turner’s body in September. They point out the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Inspector General has yet to release its summary findings into the factors that may have led up to or contributed to Colton’s death. That report could recommend the state go ahead with criminal charges against those caseworkers and others.
Typically, the OIG produces child death investigative reports within 60 days. It has been more than three months since police investigators discovered the boy’s body in a shallow grave in SouthEast Austin after receiving information from Work’s boyfriend, Michael Turner, according to a police affidavit.
CPS Commissioner John Specia told KXAN in October the buck stops with him after admitting the agency failed Colton Turner. The one-time Family Court Judge has been championing the agency’s internal reforms since being appointed to the post in 2012. His team commissioned the Stephens Report and is actively promoting a cultural shift inside the agency called Transformation to make it a more attractive place to work, despite the obvious challenges for staff of investigating child abuse and neglect complaints.
KXAN has reported on the sheer volume some case workers have been dealing with – particularly those in Travis County. That prompted the agency to parachute in interim staff this fall to help reduce the backlog of delinquent cases (where no attention was given for more than 60 days) which number about 378 as of mid December.