The woman was sitting on the pavement outside a South Austin clinic, clutching her toddler, sobbing.
Adrian Lopez was trying to calm her down, speaking calmly but authoritatively about next steps.
“Start giving me Options One, Two, Three, Four, because I need to go down the list and start talking to them,” said Lopez, an investigator with Child Protective Services.
The woman had an open case with CPS and was scheduled to take a drug test, but she had just told Lopez information about recent drug use that meant her children could no longer stay with her. He needed to come up with a friend or family member who could watch them starting that night so they didn’t have to be taken into foster care, and the clock was ticking.
She looked at Lopez, whom she’d gotten to know over the course of the case, took a deep breath and started offering names.
Last year, CPS, housed within the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, completed 166,753 investigations that confirmed that 58,664 children were victims of abuse or neglect in the state. Several issues and events — including child abuse deaths, a federal ruling that deemed part of the state’s foster care system unconstitutional and caseworkers leaving in droves — have prompted state lawmakers to give $150 million in emergency funding to the department to hire 829 employees, including 550 caseworkers and investigators, as well as to fund a $12,000 raise to staffers to keep them from quitting.
Before the raise, salaries for entry-level CPS investigators started around $35,000. To become an investigator, applicants must have either a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree plus two years of relevant work experience.
The American-Statesman tagged along with 32-year-old Lopez, who has worked for CPS across the state for the past six years, on several recent days to see what it’s like to be an investigator. (The Statesman is withholding identifying information about the families and children involved in CPS cases, which the agency keeps confidential.)
“There’s been times where parents or people related to the case have made statements when they’re upset, have cursed or said, ‘I want to kill you,’ or ‘I’m gonna get you,’” Lopez said. “It’s rare that a family is happy to see you at their door.”
The cases Lopez investigates come from calls made to a statewide intake line and are categorized as Priority One or Priority Two reports. For Priority One reports — situations in which a child appears to face an immediate risk of abuse or neglect that could result in death or serious harm — investigations must start within 24 hours. For the remaining Priority Two reports, investigations must start within 72 hours.
One day we accompanied Lopez to a North Austin apartment complex as he went to make initial contact with a woman on a Priority Two report. Violence had been reported in the home, and he was there to ensure that the child was safe.
Seated at the dining room table, her infant cooing in her arms, the woman said the words Lopez hears almost every day: “I don’t want to get my son taken away.”
“The misconception is that CPS takes kids away,” Lopez told the Statesman. “It’s very common for me to go and meet with the family and the first thing they ask is, ‘Are you here to remove my kid?’ or ‘Are you here to take my kid away?’”
Actions taken depend on the severity of a case. Sometimes, CPS parents follow a safety plan that might include classes as well as family support. Sometimes, children can be placed temporarily with a friend or relative. And sometimes, a child gets placed in foster care, although that’s never the goal, Lopez said.
As he talked to the woman, Lopez calmly collected details for the investigation. Who is the child’s primary doctor? Who do you consider your support system? How do you handle stress?
When he was done with the interview he called his supervisor — CPS investigators are on the phone with their supervisors almost constantly early in a case — with an update. Next steps included getting in touch with the child’s father, contacting references and piecing together a plan of action.
“This is a very tough job, and it can be very draining,” said Lopez’s supervisor, Sarah Bailey. “I try to be as supportive as possible, be available, give direction as needed. I think we do a great job as a team helping each other out.”
Lopez echoed the team mentality, mentioning that he recently told a nervous co-worker to pick him up at 3 a.m. so he could be her backup on a tough case. Lopez was also one of the caseworkers who monitored children who were sleeping in CPS offices and hotels last year when there weren’t enough placement options.
“If there’s one bad story that comes out of CPS and 100 good stories, that one bad story is the one that’s going to stick out, the one that’s going to be talked about,” Lopez said. “If you’re going to be working this job, you have to understand that even if you’re doing something good, it’s not going to be something good that people are acknowledging.”
It’s also complicated, Lopez said, because there are so many moving parts — people to track down, homes to tour, backgrounds to check and references to call. Sometimes even when investigators would like to take more action in a case, they simply don’t have the legal grounds to do so.
Lopez said that when he decided to take a position with CPS, he didn’t expect it to be a long-term gig, but the strength of his team, combined with the recent increase of funding to the department, has made him reconsider.
“When I first started at the department, I didn’t know I would have been here this long. Now, I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon,” he said. “I like the way that we are headed. If I can stay with the department and help out in any way, then I plan on retiring from here.”
Back in South Austin, Lopez and his client relocated from the clinic to the apartment where she was staying, and he got to work doing background checks and researching the CPS histories of people she had named who might be willing to take her children.
After texting his family that yet again he wouldn’t be home in time for dinner — cheesesteaks on this night — he called Bailey to go over temporary placement options, the comforting hum of the TV in the background underscoring lives about to change. The woman cuddled her toddler again.
“Let me love on you before they take you from me,” she said. “I don’t know when they’ll let me see you again.”
Eventually, the woman’s friend was cleared as a temporary placement, so Lopez took the children there, where they’ll stay as their mom handles the services and classes CPS has asked her to complete.
Lopez got home around 10 p.m. and did the day’s paperwork while eating his long-awaited cheesesteak. The next day, he’d get up and do it again.
“With kids that aren’t verbal, they’re not able to make outcries. They’re not able to tell you what happened. They don’t have somebody speaking for them,” Lopez said. “We are the only ones that can go assess a situation, make sure the child is safe and be able to find resources to at least guide the family in the right direction or take that child outside of that unsafe situation. If we don’t do it, there isn’t another department that can.”
This story reflects the paper’s consistent focus on public health and safety issues. The Statesman’s award-winning investigation “Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences” found that Child Protective Services and the foster care system housed within the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services hadn’t systematically analyzed reported abuse- and neglect-related child deaths, meaning that in important ways, Texas’ child protection workers effectively have been operating with blinders, missing deadly patterns and key pieces of information that could help protect kids.
Since then, the agency’s leadership has been revamped and state lawmakers have filed dozens of bills to initiate major reforms. To read the series, go to projects.statesman.com/news/cps-missed-signs.