An Abilene judge has ordered the leader of Texas Child Protective Services to show up in court Wednesday to explain why his agency can’t keep a 14-year-old girl from repeatedly running away from foster care.
Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman — who runs Child Protective Services — has been directed by state District Judge Paul Rotenberry to appear in his courtroombecause the teenager has run away from foster care five times since April. Rotenberry wants Whitman to explain why the agency has not been able to “provide care, control and protection” of the girl, according to court documents.
The girl was the subject of a statewide Amber Alert when she ran away from foster care in April. The Texas Department of Public Safety said the then-13-year-old was involved with an adult and was possibly being given drugs.
Whitman is expected to appear at the hearing. The agency declined to discuss the details of the case.
“Commissioner Whitman is always interested in facing difficult issues head-on and finding solutions,” said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Department Family and Protective Services.
The highly unusual order for Whitman to personally appear in court for a case related to foster care highlights a long-standing problem for CPS. In 2016, 1,068 youths ran away, according to state statistics. While the number is just a fraction of the approximately 30,000 children in state conservatorship, foster care runaways are at risk of serious harm.
Last year, a 15-year-old foster girl was hit by a van and died after running away from the Houston CPS office in which she was temporarily staying. In a 2017 CPS report based on information gathered from some of the children, 53 who returned after running away said they were victimized while missing, including 31 who said they were trafficked for sex and 20 who said they were sexually abused.
Rotenberry’s order signals the frustration judges can face when handling chronic runaways. In December, 163 children were listed as runaways, including 16 in the region that includes Travis County.
“It is frustrating, and it does happen more often than you would like for it to happen,” said state District Judge Darlene Byrne in Austin.
Rotenberry declined to comment.
The Abilene case involves a girl who has been in state care since April and has been running away from residential treatment centers, according to Bryce Bedford, the girl’s attorney ad litem. CPS workers found and tried to return the teen to the facilities, but she jumped out of the car and ran away again, he said.
The girl is still missing.
According to court papers filed by the girl’s mother — who wants CPS removed as the teen’s temporary guardian — Rotenberry wants CPS workers to restrain the girl when she tries to run. CPS workers have refused because agency policy forbids them to restrain children, the document states.
“All they can do is admonish them and say ‘Hey, come back here,’ ” Bedford said.
Restraining foster children isn’t the right thing to do, Byrne said. Foster children are often traumatized and can feel compelled to run as a defense mechanism, she said.
“The last thing you want is criminal justice involved,” she said. “The cops could get there, and then you’re going to get an evading arrest case, and then you lock up the sex-trafficked minor.”
Kate Murphy with Texans Care for Children agrees that restraining foster children isn’t the answer.
“They may feel unsafe, powerless or isolated,” she said. “Physically restraining foster youth who run away will not address those challenges.”
But right now, the girl is facing other dangers, Bedford said.
“Usually when we’ve found her, she’s been around druggies, people using drugs or selling drugs,” Bedford said. “She’s been around a lot of bad characters.”
Foster children often run away from emergency shelters and residential treatment centers. Brandi Bramlett with the Safe Alliance — which runs the Austin Children’s Shelter — says staffers there contain children 13 or younger who try to run away because they are less likely to be able to take care of themselves. Shelter employees can usually talk down potential runaways, but some youths can’t be deterred, she said.
“Occasionally you’ll get kiddos who are going to run, and they’re going to do it no matter what you say or do,” Bramlett said.
While CPS isn’t perfect, the department has improved the way it deals with runaways in her court, Byrne said. When a child disappears, CPS contacts law enforcement, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the judge and other parties involved in the case.
Byrne said she hopes Whitman will convince Rotenberry that the department is taking the girl’s case seriously and is doing everything it can to find her.
“This is a survival tool for these kids,” she said. “They don’t know who to trust. They don’t know what to trust. From my perspective, you never, ever, ever give up.”
FOSTER CARE RUNAWAYS
In 2016, 1,068 children in state care ran away. Of those:
• 948 were 14 or older.
• 306 ran away more than once.
• 776 were found in an average of six weeks.
• 53 who were found and returned to state care said that while they were gone, they were victimized through sex trafficking, physical abuse or other means, according to a state survey. Not all of the children participated.
Source: Department of Family and Protective Services
This story is an example of the American-Statesman’s commitment to coverage of Child Protective Services in Texas. In recent months, the Statesman has also covered the risks involved in housing foster children in state offices, how CPS investigations continue to miss key deadlines in child abuse investigations, and efforts by a federal judge to force Texas to fix problems her court identified in 2015.