Despite efforts to overhaul Child Protective Services through new leadership and increased scrutiny, state investigators are still failing to quickly check on potentially abused and neglected children.
In mid-September, more than 14,000 kids across the state — one-third of those with open CPS cases — had not been seen by child abuse investigators between 24 and 72 hours after a report of abuse, the state-mandated timeframe in which caseworkers must see children. Of those, nearly 2,000 were considered urgent cases, meaning the kids could have been in immediate danger.
In Travis County, 42 percent of about 2,900 children had not been seen by the deadline.
“We have to do a better job of seeing children more quickly,” said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees Child Protective Services. “It is unacceptable for these children to remain unseen.”
The numbers offer a snapshot into one of the biggest problems facing CPS: quickly investigating child abuse allegations and removing kids from danger before they are hurt. A 2015 investigation by the American-Statesman — Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences — found that early nearly half of the 779 children who died were already on CPS’s radar. Of those 380 fatalities, 144 families — more than a quarter — had been the subject of a CPS investigation at least 3 times.
The agency is still facing monumental challenges on all fronts. Child abuse deaths are up. Caseworker turnover is high. Tenured workers are fleeing the agency, salaries are low and a shortage of foster homes has forced CPS to house children in offices and hotels. Meanwhile, a federal judge ordered the state to overhaul its foster care system, saying it puts children in danger and violates their civil rights.
Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott — who has said fixing CPS is among his top priorities — tapped new leadership to tackle the agency’s predicament. Hank Whitman, a former Texas Ranger, was named commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services. A new leader was appointed to run CPS. The state fired four out of its 10 regional directors in charge of CPS operations across the state and a fifth director retired.
“Protecting Texas’ children is a top priority for Governor Abbott and he has made it clear that the status quo is unacceptable and that additional measures must be taken to reduce and eliminate child abuse, neglect and death,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman.
Despite the increased attention to the problem, the percentage of children not seen on time statewide hasn’t improved — and locally, it got worse. In March, 32 percent of Travis County children hadn’t been seen on time. Now it’s 42 percent percent.
It’s unclear why the numbers have risen as of late, but investigators have long struggled to meet those deadlines, in large part because of turnover. In fiscal year 2016, 33 percent of child abuse investigators quit, leaving those left behind to pick up abandoned cases. Investigators can juggle as many as 50 or 60 cases at one time, making it difficult to visit children in a timely manner.
The abuse allegations — which can come from relatives, teachers, neighbors or others — are made through a state hotline and vary in severity. Some reports involve children seen with bruises or marks that raise suspicions of abuse. Others might allege that a child is being left alone too long.
Because the seriousness of the allegations vary, CPS divides its initial response into two primary categories: Priority 1 cases, when a child’s immediate safety is at risk, must be initiated within 24 hours; Priority 2 cases, which are considered less urgent, must be initiated within three days.
But just because kids can’t be found doesn’t mean investigators haven’t looked for them.
“Many families are not home, or have moved, or do not want to be found,” Crimmins said.
CPS under scrutiny
Skipping home visits or failing to do them in a timely manner has been a persistent problem for CPS officials in Texas, and lapses have led to firings and criticism in several high-profile child deaths. Three CPS workers were fired after the 2014 death of 2-year-old Colton Turner in Austin, when state officials found they did not properly investigate allegations the boy had been abused, and did not visit him as scheduled. Similar lapses occurred in the beating death of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright of Grand Prairie earlier this year, leading to the firings of two CPS workers.