AUSTIN (KXAN) – Calling the deaths of children in state care ‘intolerable’, Gov. Greg Abbott is calling for swift changes to how cases of child abuse and neglect are prevented and reported, and how those children are placed in foster care and subsequently kept safe from harm around firearms, vehicles, water and sleeping arrangements.
“I am deeply concerned to learn that three children (see the bottom of this post for detail) under the care and supervision of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) died in the first three months of 2015,” Abbott wrote in a strongly worded letter to DFPS Commissioner John Specia. Nine children died from abuse and neglect in 2014 in Travis County, DFPS staff confirm – none of them in state care. In Central Texas, highly publicized child deaths last year included Cedar Park toddler Colton Turner, as well as two children in foster care who drowned in Lake Georgetown in Williamson County.
Abbott is proposing an additional $40 million for children and families at risk and foster children.
“It has come to my attention that safety screenings, the review of child fatalities, and the process for closing certain types of Child Protective Services (CPS) cases are three areas of weakness within our system,” Abbott’s letter reads. He is asking Specia to give an update by April 15 on a list of actions which DFPS officials describe as new actions, not included in recent publicized strides to improve service.
“We appreciate the support of Governor Abbott on this very important issue, and look forward to working with him and with legislators to strengthen protections and ensure safety for children in families who are involved with Child Protective Services (CPS),” Specia said in response to the letter.
Last year, DFPS launched a rebuilding process called ‘Transformation’ to better hire, train and retain child protection staff and managers.
CPS staff confirm the three child deaths in 2015:
- Justice Hull, Dallas – The 2-month-old girl was drowned Jan. 26, 2015. Justice had been placed with a friend of her mother’s in a Parental Child Safety Placement (PCSP), while her mother was incarcerated. The 14-year-old daughter of the family friend has been charged with capital murder in the case. The DFPS Office of Child Safety issued a report on the case.
- Codrick McCall, Houston – The 4-year-old boy died from an accidental gunshot wound on March 1, 2015. His family was being investigated by CPS at the time. He had been placed with a friend of the family and was in that home when the accident occurred. His death is still under investigation by CPS and by law enforcement. The Office of Child Safety is reviewing the case and a report is expected to be released in the next few weeks.
- Audrey Torres, Hall County (near Amarillo) – The 3-year-old girl died in an automobile accident on March 8, 2015. The driver of the car, who allegedly was drunk, also died in the crash. At the time of the accident her family was being investigated and monitored by CPS. The Office of Child Safety is reviewing this case.
Child Protection groups react to Gov. Abbott’s proposal
Child protection groups welcomed the Governor’s efforts, “…but if state leaders are serious about keeping kids safe after the state removes them from their homes, they can’t force those kids to compete with 27 other children for the attention of an overworked caseworker,” said Ashley Harris, a former CPS caseworker who now serves as the Child Protection Policy Associate at Texans Care for Children. “When caseworkers are forced to rush from home to home, they miss the clues that a child may be in a dangerous foster home.”
In November, KXAN Investigated CPS worker caseloads and found examples of child welfare investigators balancing heavy workloads.
Harris also pointed out in a release the House Appropriations Committee approved a two-year state budget on March 24 that maintains the current conservatorship caseload level of 28 foster children per caseworker. National best practices established by the Child Welfare League of America recommend a maximum caseload of 17 children, she wrote. The budget proposal will be considered by the full House of Representatives on Tuesday and must eventually be reconciled with the budget the Senate is writing.
In fiscal years 2013 and 2014, 13 kids died as a result of abuse and neglect with the foster families selected for them by the state or its contractors, compared to two child deaths in fiscal year 2012. During legislative hearings last year, a number of former foster youth testified that they were abused in foster care.
“These children have already experienced abuse or neglect and the trauma of removal from their homes,” Harris said in the release. “They need a caseworker who has the time to look out for them so they can rebuild their lives and avoid dangerous foster homes. We urge the Legislature to provide the funding it takes to keep these vulnerable children safe and put them on a path to a permanent, loving home.”
Another key legislative measure to protect children in foster care, HB 781, would establish stronger screening and training standards for foster parents. The bill was left pending in the House Human Services Committee following a hearing on March 9.