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Gov. Abbott calls for CPS reforms, more money for protection efforts

Gov. Greg Abbott called for rapid improvement to the state Child Protective Services system Wednesday, offering the agency $40 million to bulk up its protection of vulnerable children and their families.

In a letter to Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Judge John Specia Jr., Abbott cited the deaths of 12 children under state supervision in the past 15 months as evidence the agency needed to do a radically better job of ensuring kids are placed in safe homes.

The governor directed Specia to more rigorously assess family members and friends who take in abused children and to enforce rules requiring workers to conduct face-to-face visits with children in so-called safety placements — temporary arrangements while the agency conducts investigations.

The governor also directed the agency to better use information gathered in child fatality and injury reviews to protect children — a failing identified by an American-Statesman investigation published earlier this year.

“Abuse or neglect of our most vulnerable Texans – our children – is intolerable and it is especially unacceptable when it happens to a child under the care umbrella of the State of Texas,” Abbott wrote.

The announcement represented one of Abbott’s first public initiatives as governor, although it was unclear how the $40 million in “additional funding” he referenced in his letter would figure into the child protection agency’s future budget. According to the agency’s appropriations request, it already was seeking an additional $200 million, which includes about $40 million for additional prevention services, over the next two years.

The governor’s pledge Wednesday referred to the $40 million included in his February budget presentation to the Legislature “for children and families at risk and foster children,” according to his spokeswoman, Amelia Chassé.

Still, Abbott’s letter added urgency to an issue that has haunted the state in recent years. The Statesman investigation found that nearly half of the 800 child abuse or neglect fatalities between 2009 and 2014 occurred in families already on CPS’s radar.

It also revealed problems with one of the issues targeted by Abbott’s letter: child deaths that have occurred when children are put in more informal arrangements called “parental-child safety placements,” designed to quickly remove children from potentially dangerous situations. In those arrangements — which are sanctioned by CPS and don’t have to be approved by a judge — a parent agrees to temporarily place a child with relatives or friends. In fiscal 2014, 32,000 Texas children were placed in such homes.

According to Abbott, three Texas children in the informal placements have died since January: a 2-month-old girl who drowned, a 4-year-old boy who died of an accidental gunshot wound; and a 3-year-old girl who died in an auto accident.

The Statesman investigation found that at least 86 children died after being abused or neglected by nonparent relatives between September 2009 and August 2014.

One of those children was Orien Hamilton of Cedar Park, who died after, police say, a man who was never supposed to be in the home crushed the baby’s head between his knee and the floor. Jacob Salas, who had three children with the baby’s aunt and foster caregiver Heather Hamilton, had been barred from the home because the organization previously determined he had medically neglected one of his children, and he had been arrested twice on family violence charges.

When a CPS caseworker questioned Heather Hamilton about an allegation that Salas was living in the home, she denied it, CPS officials say. The caseworker believed her, even though criminal court documents accusing Salas of theft in August stated that he lived at Heather Hamilton’s address.

Salas was charged with capital murder and is awaiting trial.

The Statesman’s investigation also found that between 2010 and 2014, the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS, didn’t publicly report 655 child abuse-related fatalities, even though the department confirmed that those children had been mistreated prior to their deaths. Currently, the law requires such public reporting only if the agency determines abuse or neglect was directly responsible for a child’s death.

In response, state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, has filed a bill that would close that gap. The proposed law would require the agency to promptly release information not only on child fatalities in which the investigators determine that abuse or neglect caused the child’s death, but those involving a “critical injury that reasonably could have resulted in the child’s death.” The bill also would require the agency to include all such cases in its annual fatality report.

Specia said the governor’s new set of directives would help the agency better fulfill its mission: “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.”

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