Greater transparency can help fix CPS

Starting Sunday and continuing in print through Tuesday, the American-Statesman is publishing the results of a six-month analysis of 779 child death reports written by Child Protective Services from September 2009 through March 2014.

Reported by Andrea Ball and Eric Dexheimer, the Statesman’s unprecedented review found almost 400 cases in which children who died of abuse or neglect were known by CPS to be in potential danger. And yet the state failed to protect these vulnerable children. Nor did the state use information it collected about child deaths to try to identify trends that possibly could have prevented additional fatalities.

The Statesman’s review also found that the actual number of abuse- and neglect-related child deaths in Texas might be significantly higher than the number the Department of Family and Protective Services has publicly reported — the result of the department inconsistently deciding which children died directly of abuse and neglect and which ones didn’t. It is also the result of failing to always err on the side of transparency.

Dexheimer and Ball’s reporting adds weight to proposals already before the Texas Legislature, which convenes Tuesday, to change the state’s child-welfare system. For years the persistently troubled Child Protective Services has received legislative attention, and this year lawmakers once again will seek solutions to a problem that never seems to go away. They will consider proposals from a select House committee, the Sunset Advisory Commission and a private consultant. Topping their list will be the need to address high turnover rates among caseworkers and to improve the agency’s tracking of children at risk of abuse or neglect.

The dozen stories that make up the Statesman’s series will stretch across three days in print, but they already are available on The most dispiriting of Dexheimer and Ball’s numerous findings: Of the 779 child deaths the Statesman reviewed, the families of 374 of those children — just under half — were visited by CPS caseworkers at least once before the child’s death. In 144 fatalities — or in about 1 out of 5— caseworkers had visited the family at least three times.

A previous legislative reform attempt made the Statesman’s review possible. In 2009, the Legislature required Child Protective Services to document child abuse and neglect fatalities. The agency dutifully met the Legislature’s requirements, writing and collecting hundreds of reports.

But the agency missed the point of the exercise by doing nothing with the information it collected. Not until Dexheimer and Ball analyzed the reports did anyone go through them to see what patterns and lessons might be learned from them — to try to figure out how caseworkers might use the reports to better protect children at risk of being hurt.

“What we hoped was that the different advocacy groups, CPS, every stakeholder would be able to look at this data and learn from it so we wouldn’t make the same mistakes again,” Democratic state Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio, who sponsored the 2009 report legislation, told the Statesman.

The Department of Family and Protective Services points out that the number of child abuse and neglect fatalities in Texas has declined sharply the past couple of years — a positive development, to be sure — but the Statesman’s review also found that between 2010 and 2014, the department did not publicly report 655 child abuse-related fatalities because Child Protective Services decided the abuse did not directly cause the deaths, and that it therefore was not required by state law to publicly reveal the numbers.

Some child-welfare advocates see a deliberate underrepresentation of the true number of fatalities in which an adult was found to have mistreated a child before the child’s death so the agency can claim it is making greater progress than is actually being made. What is known is the Statesman’s review found few clear reasons why some deaths ended up a public list and why others didn’t.

The solution is obvious: All information should be made public, and the Legislature should emphasize the point by changing the law. Uresti said he supports the change emphasizing transparency because legislators need all the information they can get if they are to make changes to the state’s child protection system that work and endure.

As Uresti told the Statesman: “No one needs to hide from the facts. Full disclosure and transparency: That’s the way we can help.”

We’ll follow this editorial with a look later this week at what else should be done to fix CPS. Meanwhile, we encourage you to read the Statesman’s important series.

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