Texas Politics

More must be done to protect Texas children, lawmakers demand

Sisters Yuselei and Lluviana Monroy look over photos of Leiliana Wright prior to a candlelight vigil for Leiliana at Katherine Rose Memorial Park in Mansfield on April 10.
Sisters Yuselei and Lluviana Monroy look over photos of Leiliana Wright prior to a candlelight vigil for Leiliana at Katherine Rose Memorial Park in Mansfield on April 10. Special to the Star-Telegram

North Texas lawmakers say it’s time for the state to do a better job of protecting those most in need.

While state officials took a good first step this week in naming new leaders to oversee the state agency over Texas’ Child Protective Services, that’s all that should be — a first step, local lawmakers say.

“CPS has had challenges for a long time,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “But the recent spate of horrific stories we’ve seen … shows that we have a true emergency when it comes to CPS, the foster care system and how to protect our most vulnerable citizens.

“There’s bipartisan outrage over what’s happening and there should be bipartisan support to swiftly improve the situation.”

This comes as Texas’ embattled child welfare agency has been under scrutiny for an increase in child abuse and death cases, caseworker turnover, children sleeping in state office buildings, the recent death of a 4-year-old Grand Prairie girl, even a court ruling that noted Texas’ foster care system often releases children “more damaged than when they entered.”

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced that former Texas Rangers Chief Henry “Hank” Whitman had been chosen to lead the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS. One of his new top assistants will be Kristene Blackstone, who will serve as assistant commissioner for CPS.

And Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Tuesday said a top 2017 priority will be to improve the state’s system for helping abused children.

There were 176,868 completed child abuse/neglect investigations in Texas — 43,848 in the Fort Worth, Arlington, Dallas region — last year.

“The status quo at CPS is unacceptable,” Abbott said in a statement. “I’ve insisted on overhauling a broken system.”

New reports show there were 176,868 completed child abuse/neglect investigations in Texas, with 43,848 in the Arlington region, last year.

Those investigations led to 75,328 children — including 16,976 in the Arlington region, which covers more than a dozen counties including Tarrant, Dallas, Denton and Collin — being involved in cases opened last year, according to family and protective services statistics.

Abbott’s move may be a good first step, but more is needed, local lawmakers say.

“We are trying to figure out what’s going on and it seems every day there’s something new,” said state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. “We are going to go all in and try to figure out where the holes are in the system.

“We are going to be digging deep into some of this stuff.”

Huge caseload

One of the most recent cases to plunge the child welfare agency into the spotlight was the death of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright, a Grand Prairie girl beaten to death last month.

Wright, whose body was bruised and showed whip marks on her back, died from blunt-force trauma to her head and abdomen, according to a medical examiner report and arrest warrant affidavits.

Her mother, Jeri Quezada, 30, and Quezada’s boyfriend, Charles Phifer, 34, have been accused in her death. A Child Protective Services caseworker and a supervisor who worked on the case were fired. A CPS special investigator who also worked on the case resigned.

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, is among those concerned about what’s happening with the state agency that should be protecting children like Wright.

“I’ve always said government needs to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” she said. “This is where we need to put our time, energy and resources to help these children.”

Straus said he and his office will be visiting with agency officials in the coming months to see what lawmakers can do to protect Texas children.

“All of us have a responsibility to end the suffering that far too many Texas children are experiencing,” Straus said. “This is not a new challenge or a simple one, but the complexity of the problem is not an excuse for inaction. Texas children are counting on all of us.”

Some point to an overwhelming number of cases, too many to be handled by existing caseworkers.

Guidelines by the Child Welfare League of America suggest that caseworkers looking into neglect or abuse should have “at most” 12 active cases a month.

Most caseworkers have more than that, and “in a few agencies, caseloads may exceed 40 and even 50 cases per worker,” the welfare agency states.

“It’s not physically possible for anyone to effectively oversee that many situations and ensure that children are being kept safe,” Turner said.

Nearly half of Texas’ CPS workers — who generally earn a starting salary of $32,976 — are likely will leave their jobs in less than three years.

Especially at a time when CPS workers — who generally earn a starting salary of $32,976 — are likely to leave their jobs in less than three years. More than 21 percent of the CPS workers leave the agency in less than a year and 27.2 percent follow in one to three years, agency statistics show.

“We can’t keep kids safe if more than half the employees charged with keeping them safe are leaving,” Turner said.

Taking a stand

Stickland said he’s worried about reports that have shown children sleeping on cots at CPS offices and he wants to know how funds allocated to CPS are being used.

Last year, he tried to pass a bill to open the door to more foster parents.

“Everyone is always saying there’s a shortage of foster parents, and I heard you had to put the kids in public school if you are foster parent,” Stickland said. “But a lot of parents home school or send their children to private school.”

So his bill, which died, would have allowed foster parents to home school children in their care. Another lawmaker ultimately added his bill as an amendment to an amendment on Senate Bill 206 and it is now law.

“We got push back from CPS,” Stickland said. “They basically said the public schools help keep track of the kids.”

It’s time, he said, to stand in defense of children.

You can’t be pro-life if you’re not willing to stick up for kids after they are born.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford

“You can’t be pro-life if you’re not willing to stick up for kids after they are born,” Stickland said.

Straus notes that the Legislature last year passed reforms to the Department of Family and Protective Services and boosted CPS funding by $231 million.

“Changes are taking effect each day, and there are thousands of agency employees doing good work in extremely difficult circumstances,” he said. “But the statewide system is still broken, and the Texas House will work with all parties to fix it.”

A Sunset Advisory Commission reviewed the agency in 2014-15 and identified issues that needed to be addressed.

“Children should be cherished and protected by their parents,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who heads the Senate Finance Committee and for years worked on health and human service issues. “It is a sad commentary that we need a huge agency to deal with these issues.

“Our sunset review found this agency is often in crisis mode and well-intentioned reforms over the years were pulling it in different directions,” she said. “The laws were overhauled and significant new funding added. We are closely monitoring the impact of those decisions and reviewing the need for further action.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley