In the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 172 children died in Texas from neglect or abuse, a 23 percent decrease from the year before, according to new data released by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Over the last eight years, the number of such deaths — which include accidents and intentionally caused fatalities — each year have fluctuated between 151 to 227.
Child deaths, along with high worker turnover and problems seeing potentially abused children in a timely manner, prompted the agency to pursue major reforms in Texas Child Protective Services. Those reforms likely contributed to the drop, but more needs to be done to prevent child deaths, according to child advocacy group TexProtects.
In 60 percent of such cases in 2017, CPS had been involved with the child’s family prior to the child’s death or was involved at the time of the child’s death.
“I think it’s very exciting we’ve seen a drop,” said Dimple Patel, associate director of public policy for TexProtects. “I do think that reducing turnover, lowering caseloads and improving the work environment goes a very long way in that you can improve CPS’ response to families that are at risk.”
In late 2016, lawmakers approved $150 million in emergency funding to give caseworkers $12,000 yearly pay raises and to allow the welfare agency to hire an additional 829 employees. Retention and hiring efforts resulted in Child Protective Services employee turnover dropping to the lowest level in at least a decade and caseworker caseloads dropping as much as 37 percent between Oct. 2016 and Oct. 2017.
But agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins hesitates to attribute last year’s improvement to the hiring efforts and pay raises, saying public awareness to reduce unsafe environments for children was a more possible influence.
“There were decreases in unsafe sleep deaths, so perhaps our constant drumbeat of safe sleep messages, and those from (Department of State Health Services), paramedics, and emergency room physicians, is making a difference,” Crimmins said. “There are too many variables to tie it to something like pay raises.”
Over the last year, unsafe sleeping fatalities, typically from suffocation during co-sleeping, fell by 30 percent, drownings fell by 7 percent, homicides and physical abuse fell by 32 percent and car deaths fell by 24 percent.
Texas often has the highest number of child deaths in the country, but when calculated in proportion to the state’s child population — 7.5 million in 2017 — Texas does better than a handful of states. CPS was assigned to investigate 238,600 children in 2017.
In Travis County, child death figures have fluctuated over the years. Seven child deaths due to abuse or neglect were reported in fiscal 2017. One of those cases involved 27-year-old Stephen Cortez, Jr., who police said had abused his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter. Although Cortez and the girl’s mother had said the girl had fallen down the stairs, doctors told police that they found a “high impact” injury to her abdomen as well as bruises to her abdomen, face and limbs. Cortez has been charged in Travis County with felony injury to a child.
CPS had been involved with the 2-year-old’s family before.
Fifty-two percent of the child deaths statewide involved a parent or caregiver who was using drugs or alcohol, 23 percent involved a parent or caregiver who had reported or confirmed mental health concerns, and in 40 percent of the deaths the victim’s family had a history of domestic violence.
Patel said mitigating such risk factors as drug abuse, mental health issues and domestic violence are ways to bring the number of child deaths down in the future.
“One area that we haven’t heavily invested in is the services that we actually offer to children and families that are at risk of abusing and neglecting their kids,” Patel said. “We invested a lot in the workforce last legislative session, but where we haven’t really invested a lot of time or money is those services, especially around substance abuse.”
WHAT WE REPORTED
The American-Statesman published “Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences,” a three-day series of stories in 2015 reviewing 779 child death reports by Child Protective Services from September 2009 through March 2014. The Statesman found nearly 400 cases in which children who died of abuse or neglect were known by CPS to be in potential danger. The investigation found that high staff turnover rates and low salaries contributed to the problem.