One week after a 1-year-old girl was fatally injured in her Cedar Park foster home, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services unveiled a sweeping safety plan prompted by a spike in foster care deaths.
But some new mandates in the plan are only required for homes in the Austin area, where 1-year-old Orion Hamilton and 2-year-old Alexandria Hill died in recent months from injuries sustained in their foster homes. Those measures include unannounced visits to foster children living with their relatives in “kinship placements” and an immediate review of frequent visitors to those homes. In 2012, there were about 1,300 Austin-area children in kinship placements.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said it is critical that the state figure out what is going wrong.
“It’s hard to say something’s not broken when you have a child that dies,” he said.
Approximately 28,000 Texas children are under state care and living in settings such as nonrelative foster homes, residential treatment facilities or emergency shelters. Of those, about 11,200 are in kinship placements. Between September 2011 and August 2013, the number of foster children who died from abuse or neglect jumped from two per year to eight per year.
Of the eight deaths in 2013, seven were attributed to neglectful supervision and one was abuse related, said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for Family and Protective Services, which oversees Child Protect Services. Four of those deaths occurred in kinship placements.
The new plan includes retraining caseworkers to recognize safety concerns, scrutinizing kinship placements more closely and issuing quarterly trend reports on child deaths from abuse and neglect. Officials say they will limit the number of medically needy foster children who can be placed in one home. They will also require caseworkers to interview adult children of potential foster parents before they are licensed as caretakers.
The changes have been in the works for months, Crimmins said. An official plan, however, was fast-tracked after state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, told the agency she was distressed by the number of child deaths and injuries occurring in foster homes.
On Oct. 1, before Orion’s death, Nelson wrote a letter to Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia, asking the department to identify gaps in the system.
“I request that the department share with my office a written plan detailing the actions being taken to prevent further tragedies in our programs serving children and keep my office informed of progress being made,” Nelson wrote.
Since this summer, two foster children in Central Texas have died in cases of suspected abuse. In July, 2-year-old Alexandria was killed after police say her Rockdale foster mother slammed the girl’s head on the floor. Her caretaker, Sherill Small, has been charged with capital murder.
On Oct. 20, Orion was fatally injured. Police say Jacob Salas, who has three children with Orion’s foster mother, killed the child after crushing her head between his knee and the floor.
The state requires background checks to be done on foster caregivers and frequent visitors to their homes. But after Alexandria died, it was discovered that Texas Mentor — the child-placing agency that approved Small as a foster mother — hadn’t ordered background checks on Small’s adult daughters, even though the agency’s workers knew the women were frequent visitors to the home. The women had criminal records that included drug use and kidnapping.
Although the daughters weren’t accused of any wrongdoing, the lapses pointed out a failure to properly vet the family before Alexandria went to live there. Texas Mentor went on to overhaul its operations to ensure such checks are done.
As the new safety plan gets off the ground, officials are now reviewing all regular and frequent visitors to Austin-area kinship homes to ensure proper background checks have been done.
In Orion’s case, Child Protective Services did know about problems with Salas because he had been investigated by the state agency three times. He had been arrested several times on family violence charges and, according to a recent court document filed by the department, wasn’t supposed to be around Orion or his three biological children living in the home.
A CPS caseworker saw Salas in the home at least once, but took no action, according to CPS. Last month, Orion’s biological father warned the caseworker that Salas was dangerous and living in the home, but she didn’t believe him because the foster mother — who was Orion’s aunt — denied that Salas was living there. The aunt later admitted she had lied, court documents state.
Under the new rule, caseworkers must now conduct unannounced visits to kinship placements in the Austin area, something that might have alerted the agency to the fact that Salas was living in the home. In the past, caseworkers weren’t required to do any unannounced home visits to such kinship placements.
While many of the policies announced Friday go into effect immediately, the state will also host a series of public forums to get more ideas for reforms. A meeting will be held in Austin on Nov. 6 at the John H. Winters Building, 701 West 51st St.
Changes in foster care oversight announced Friday by state officials include:
- Issuing quarterly trend reports, starting in 2014, on child deaths from abuse and neglect.
- Limiting the number of medically needy foster children that can be placed in one home.
- Increasing the number of unannounced visits to all foster homes, including homes where foster children are staying with relatives through what are known as “kinship placements.”
- Updating the agency’s kinship placement home studies to ensure that caseworkers are adequately discussing safety issues and recognize risks.
- For state licensed foster homes, requiring that caseworkers interview all grown adult children of the foster parent before issuing a license.
- Holding a statewide training refresher on safety for all CPS foster and adoption staff on Nov. 7.
- Conducting an audit to assess how private child-placing agencies evaluate the performance of foster parents.