Despite reforms, Texas child abuse deaths rise, investigations lagging


Last March, Gov. Greg Abbott told Child Protective Services to mend its ways and gave the agency an extra $38 million to do it.

But one year later, the agency, by most measures, is doing even worse.

The number of child deaths has increased. So has the number of abused and neglected kids. Investigations are dragging on, which means more children are being left in potentially dangerous situations.

More experienced caseworkers are fleeing the agency. A federal court recently ordered the state to overhaul its foster care system. More foster kids are sleeping in CPS offices while the agency tries to find them homes. The agency commissioner is retiring.

And children continue to die in cases in which investigators conducted poor investigations or failed to do their job at all. Children like Adrian Langlais of Fort Worth, a 2-year-old who was allegedly beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend in March 2015, even after someone sent investigators pictures of bruises all over the toddler’s body.

The extra resources and attention being given to CPS was spurred in part by an American-Statesman investigation — “Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences” — that revealed deep flaws in the way the agency operates. The newspaper’s review of hundreds of documents and nearly 800 child abuse deaths between 2009 and 2014 found gaping holes in the system. Among them, abuse investigators were missing red flags before children were killed and were failing to analyze critical data to identify patterns and trends.

But one year after both the governor’s edict and the newspaper’s report, the agency has failed to meet critical benchmarks directly related to the safety of children.

In 2015:

  • 171 children died of abuse and neglect, up from 151 in 2014.
  • 108,167 cases of child abuse and neglect were confirmed, about 1,800 more than 2014.
  • State documents show that at least a dozen children died over the past 16 months in cases where employees conducted poor investigations or didn’t do their jobs.
  • The number of “delinquent cases,” those open for more than 60 days, rose both locally and statewide. In Travis County alone, the number of delinquent cases skyrocketed 76 percent and backlogged cases rose 72  percent in the 30-county area that includes Travis. In contrast, delinquent cases statewide increased 17 percent.
  • Overall staff turnover stayed flat, but the agency is losing tenured workers in much greater numbers.

 

State officials say the deep-seated troubles stem from heavy workloads, low pay, high stress and turnover and that they’re pouring time and money into easing the severity of the problems.

Those benchmarks don’t reflect promising improvements that are underway, said Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia, whose agency oversees CPS. Overall, he said, the agency is doing better. It has revamped training, held on to new employees longer, labored to improve technology and built a foundation that will help caseworkers protect children.

“Things are better today than they were 3½ years ago,” said Specia, who took the top job in December 2012 and is retiring in May.

Other changes are already underway. Health and Human Services Chief Deputy Executive Commissioner Charles Smith — who is temporarily running CPS — is making personnel decisions that suggest he will target problems by making changes at the upper management level, instead of solely punishing errant supervisors and caseworkers, as has often been done in the past. Last week, after a Dallas Morning News report about massive caseworker turnover in the Dallas area, the director in charge of that region retired and Smith appointed a high-level employee to replace her.

Current and former employees are ready for reforms because, they say, attempts to fix the agency have missed the mark and won’t solve the most profound problem: poor management, abusive supervisors, a numbers-driven culture and a penchant to scapegoat employees when things go wrong that has created a toxic environment, one that sends people running.

“People don’t leave companies,” said former Austin caseworker Elizabeth Byrd, who resigned in August. “They leave people.”

Fatal mistakes

The Department of Family and Protective Services has a long history of woes. Some stem from the almost impossible task of controlling the behavior of parents whose unpredictable and violent actions often happen behind the scenes. But the agency has also contributed to its troubles in several ways, including failing to use data-mining techniques to prevent abuse before it occurs. Agency officials say they have begun doing some of that by assigning family safety specialists to review cases in real time and flag hot spots that need extra attention.

In March 2015, Abbott — responding to the deaths of three children under state supervision in the first three months of 2015 — ordered the agency to study the safety of placing children with relatives, more closely scrutinize child fatalities and critical injuries, hold foster care providers more accountable and make other reforms.

Since the beginning of the fiscal year in September, there have been no foster child deaths, department spokeswoman Julie Moody said. Two children have died while placed with relatives; while investigations are underway, it doesn’t appear that abuse or neglect was involved, she said.

There is no way to tell with certainty whether the reforms have contributed to the current lack of foster care deaths, why child deaths increased in 2015 or why more children were abused because so many factors can play into those numbers, such as substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, family relationships and community support.

Abbott’s office says it is deeply involved in solving the problem.

“Protecting Texas’ children has been a priority for Gov. Abbott,” spokesman John Wittman said. “Our commitment remains steadfast, and is bolstered by the tens of millions of dollars in additional funding for DFPS and our demand that additional measures be taken to reduce and eliminate child abuse, neglect and death.”

Over the last year, CPS tackled its traditionally steep turnover among new workers by increasing on-the-ground training and assigning mentors to new caseworkers. In 2015, the agency was able to slash the number of newcomers who quit in the first year from 35 percent to 22 percent.

But that glimmer of hope is dimmed by the fact that the agency is simultaneously losing more experienced employees in growing numbers.

Last year, 78 percent of the caseworkers who quit had been on the job for more than one year, up 13 percent from the year before. The turnover for supervisors with the same tenure jumped 8 percent.

Specia said the loss of experienced workers is a long-standing problem, particularly in Austin, where there are more job opportunities that pay better. He said he doesn’t know why the number of those workers jumped so much last year, but is encouraged that people are staying longer, because it at least covers the cost of training them.

“If I can keep them at least two years, I’m OK with that,” Specia said.

One reason people are leaving is caseloads, said Dimple Patel with the child welfare group TexProtects. The 2015 average daily caseload for investigators across the state was 16.5, but that’s just an average. New investigators carry a lighter load while senior workers might have to juggle 30 or 40 cases at one time.

“I think we’re expecting caseworkers to do a perfect job on every single case, but we’re not giving them a workload where they can do a perfect job in every case,” Patel said.

Perfection might be impossible to achieve, but bad work can have fatal consequences.

Over the last 16 months, the Office of Inspector General and the Office of Child Safety flagged flawed casework in at least a dozen child fatality cases. In one case, a 4-year-old Lubbock girl was killed by her father after investigators didn’t meet with him to assess his known mental illness. In another, a Harris County child was beaten to death after a worker didn’t fully investigate the case — even after she saw photos that showed injuries to the child’s face, neck and arms.

Then there is the case of Adrian Langlais.

From the time he was born, Adrian was regularly cared for by John Winkler, whose son had once been in a relationship with the child’s mother. Adrian, Winkler said, was a sweet, intuitive little boy who often stayed with him during the day while his mother worked.

In late 2014, Winkler said he started noticing bruises on the boy, so he called CPS to voice concerns about violence and drug abuse in Adrian’s home. In January 2015, Winkler sent CPS pictures of the toddler’s bruises, but the investigator didn’t follow up and closed the case in February 2015, state documents show.

One month later, Adrian was beaten to death. His mother’s boyfriend was charged with capital murder. A review by the Office of Child Safety noted numerous mistakes, including a failure by the investigator to have medical professionals or law enforcement authorities review the pictures, to interview anyone other than Winkler about Adrian’s safety or to document the family history of substance abuse and violence.

“Had CPS taken my concern seriously and not tried to push me away, blow me off … I believe Adrian would be alive,” Winkler said.

‘Petty infighting’

But former and current employees say those mistakes don’t tell the whole story.

Shannon Davis — a former Austin CPS supervisor whose job was to place children in foster homes, with relatives or in other settings — agrees the workload can be daunting. But it was the lack of support, threats of punishment, verbal abuse by management and other issues that drove her to leave in February after 16 years, she said. There is so much pressure to meet deadlines, finish paperwork, visit families and complete other duties that the top-down culture is to punish rather than support, she said.

“They don’t care about your well-being,” Davis said.

Last year, Davis and several colleagues complained to Specia about their regional director, she said. The conversation was supposed to be confidential, but word got out and Davis was chastised by her boss for speaking out of turn. Specia confirmed that happened and said he was upset about it.

Davis quit a few months later.

The department’s troubles in its Austin region, documented in a 2014 internal workplace investigation conducted by the Health and Human Services Commission’s Civil Rights Office, serves as a case study of how deep management woes can run.

That summer, regional director Shelia Brown asked for the investigation because of disputes with herself and others on her leadership team. In separate interviews with the civil rights investigator, they described one another as “dishonest,” “dysfunctional,” “disagreeable,” “unprofessional,” and “unethical.”

Brown said people didn’t respect her authority. Subordinates accused her of yelling at them. Director of Field Operations Colleen McCall said she knew about the conflicts but “stated she cannot figure out why people leave at a greater rate here versus other places,” the report stated.

The Civil Rights Office concluded, “The team suffers from issues of distrust, disrespect, dislike, disagreeableness, and too many personal agendas.”

The leadership team did try to hash out their problems at one point, Brown told the investigator. “She stated in August 2014 they planned to discuss The Five Dysfunctions of a Team but decided to postpone their discussion based on lack of trust in the group.”

Brown declined to comment.

Specia said learning about the “petty infighting and personality conflicts” didn’t surprise him because he’s seen that often over the years. He said the issue was addressed by improving communication, hosting team-building activities and other efforts.

The region’s turnover has exceeded that of the state over the past year, peaking at 40 percent in some months, but has dropped sharply over the last few months.

The number of delinquent cases in Travis County has skyrocketed 75 percent in the last year, going from 343 in February 2015 to 603 this February. Cases are supposed to be wrapped up in 60 days to ensure safety issues have been addressed.

Having an old case doesn’t necessarily mean families are being ignored, Moody said. Sometimes caseworkers are waiting for medical information or a new investigator has taken over.

But delinquent cases can directly contribute to a child’s death, as the agency said happened in the case of Cedar Park toddler Colton Turner, who was beaten to death in 2014. The 2-year-old boy’s mother had been investigated four times for allegedly abusing and neglecting him, but the case sat idle as caseworkers quit or went on vacation. Months went by without any contact with the boy.

Colton was later found dead in a shallow grave in Southeast Austin.



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