ChrysanthemumAccording to Dallas News, on March third 2016,  almost 6000 Texas children needing immediate contact and tens of thousands of children throughout the year, were not visited by CPS within the mandatory deadline for priority extreme cases (sexual abuse, infants neglected by drug-addled parents and other life threatening circumstances).

The federal government has warned Texas for more than a decade that it isn’t meeting standards for timely visits in abuse investigations and the under-reporting of child abuse deaths goes back many years.  Texas education statistics are still dismal (years after rejecting federal help for their schools).  A few years ago Texas ranked 50th in births to teen moms and uninsured children, 45th in child abuse deaths and 42nd in child welfare expenditures.

Caseworker turnover (57% per year) is on the rise because increased caseloads leave workers feeling overwhelmed and ineffective and  foster children are sleeping in CPS offices because there are no homes.  Texas is only one of many states facing the hese kinds of problems.  This lack of attention and concern for a communities infants and children is appalling and certainly more costly in the long run than the funding it would take to make these children safe and healthy.  Texas is only one of many states to turn children’s health, child protection and education into a political football.

Please don’t let our state ever look like Texas.

ALL ADULTS ARE THE PROTECTORS OF ALL CHILDREN (know anyone in Texas? Please share this – it might do some good)

By ROBERT T. GARRETT and J. DAVID McSWANE
Austin Bureau

AUSTIN — Tens of thousands of infants and children believed to be in imminent danger of abuse or neglect, even death, are not being seen promptly by state child abuse investigators — and thousands of them haven’t been checked on at all.

Over the last two months, on any given day, more than 3,400 children who were on the radar of Child Protective Services hadn’t been seen once by a caseworker, according to state data of face-to-face interactions analyzed by The Dallas Morning News.

Across Texas, on an average day, nearly 700 unseen children are classified as extreme cases — “Priority 1” in the agency’s terms — in which they face an immediate safety threat or are at “risk of abuse or neglect that could result in death or serious harm.” For instance, an infant might be neglected by a drug-addled parent or a child is living with a relative suspected of sexual abuse.

It’s a sign of the depth of the havoc in the state’s child welfare system, where extreme workloads, rapid employee turnover, inept leaders and low pay have left investigators and caseworkers unable to simply check in on thousands of the most vulnerable Texans. State leaders, aware for about two months of the alarming data, have promised to overhaul the system but offered few details of how they would do so.

On March 3, the worst day in recent months, 5,917 children statewide classified as needing immediate contact hadn’t been seen within 24 or 72 hours, the mandatory deadlines for Priority 1 and 2 cases, respectively.

RELATED: How CPS decides whether a child is in danger of abuse or neglect

Last week in Dallas County, child abuse investigators still hadn’t laid eyes on 588 of those children, or about 10 percent of abuse calls.

But the most staggering numbers come from Harris County, where about 1,300 children who are supposed have already had a face-to-face contact with a caseworker haven’t been seen. The unvisited children account for about 22 percent of all cases referred to that office in March and April, The News’ analysis found.

That figure spiked to 44 percent on March 3, when 2,591 unseen children were tallied.

On average, 13 percent of Harris County’s Priority 1 children — about 250 of the worst cases — aren’t being seen.

The reasons for Harris County’s substantial backlog are unclear. Records show that in March, Harris investigators carried an average of 22 cases each – 10 more than national child welfare experts recommend. Across the state last year, all 2,150 investigators had 16.5 each, according to CPS. There are signs, also, that Houston cases are staying open too long, as they have been in Dallas in recent months.

Last fall, third-year CPS investigator Allecia Lanton quit her job in Houston, even though she liked the work, colleagues on her unit and their supervisor.

Workloads just went up, up, up, she said.

Midlevel managers grew increasingly punitive. Almost daily, they sent emails warning of disciplinary action if workers didn’t meet deadlines for filing paperwork and closing cases, she recounted.

“It just completely consumes you,” said Lanton, 31, who now helps children who’ve been sexually abused at a local Child Advocacy Center. “When I started to have dreams about the cases, that’s when I knew I had to go.”

Leiliana Wright

Leiliana Wright, who was beaten to death March 13, had a large bruise around her eye in this photo, taken weeks before child abuse investigators noted the remnants of the bruise, according to a family friend.

Child welfare experts say there’s no substitute for a prompt visit by a state worker — to make sure children named in maltreatment allegations are safe.

A state social services spokesman called CPS’ performance on first visits “inexcusable and unacceptable.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered a shake-up of top management at CPS and its parent agency, the Department of Family and Protective Services. He also has spoken of a lofty goal, to end all child-abuse deaths.

Many child-welfare experts, though, have said the quality of Texas’ initial investigations won’t improve until it lowers caseloads, does a better job of holding on to caseworkers and improves leadership offered by their front-line supervisors and midlevel bosses.

Credible cases but unchecked

The News obtained CPS’ data through the state’s open records law and found significant problems statewide.

Nearly 10 percent of all credible Texas child abuse calls aren’t being responded to in a timely way — either within one day or three days, depending on the level of concern for a child.

Even when CPS workers do manage to see children face to face, between 25 percent and 35 percent of those kids aren’t seen on time, the data show.

The metrics are real-time snapshots of possibly at-risk kids — whom the state is aware of but hasn’t checked on.

Officials at the Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees all social services programs, apparently were unaware of the problem until late February. At that time, they began to share the timely-visit numbers weekly with Abbott’s office.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (AP Photo/The Monitor, Joel Martinez)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (AP Photo/The Monitor, Joel Martinez)

The Republican governor has promised changes in the wake of several high-profile child deaths, including that of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright, a Grand Prairie girl who was beaten to death in March after CPS workers failed multiple times to protect her.

Abbott spokesman John Wittman declined to provide specifics on Abbott’s plans for fixing the problem of slow responses by caseworkers.

“I’d just want to reiterate what the governor has stated several times, that the situation at CPS is unacceptable, and he is committed to overhauling the agency – starting with the new leadership team he announced a couple of weeks ago,” Wittman said in an email.

Last month, Abbott’s social services czar, Chris Traylor, appointed former Texas Ranger Hank Whitman to lead the protective services department. Traylor also named Kristene Blackstone to run CPS as an assistant commissioner at the department.

Both started Monday.

Patrick Crimmins, the family and protective services spokesman, also didn’t provide specifics for how faster contacts will be made. Crimmins, though, said each of the state’s various regions has a plan “tailored for their particular issues.”

“Job one for us is keeping children safe, and we have to see them face to face to do that,” he said.

Several problems

The federal government has warned Texas for more than a decade that it isn’t meeting standards for timely child visits in abuse investigations. But the latest reports on face-to-face contact with children alarmed Abbott aides and Traylor when they learned of them in late February.

The data provide a fresh glimpse of just how deeply buried CPS workers are and raise concerns that yet more children could die or continue to be abused while state leaders grapple with what to do.

From September through February, Dallas County CPS investigators quit their jobs at a rate of 57 percent a year. The crisis forced the state to bring scores of workers from other parts of Texas to temporarily work Dallas cases. Several of the area’s overworked investigators complained in interviews of lousy supervisors and regional administrators.

Meanwhile, a federal judge has ordered the state to overhaul its foster care system, and more foster children are sleeping in CPS offices while the agency tries to find them homes.

At a Senate hearing last month, Democratic Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio called for a major pay raise and better working conditions for CPS workers. Meanwhile, Abbott and the agencies under his command, while expressing outrage, have been silent on whether pumping more money into child welfare will be part of the solution.

A spokesman with the Health and Human Services Commission called the situation “inexcusable and unacceptable” and indicated the commission might take a more active role in child protection.

“The entire HHS system is committed to supporting those DFPS employees who tirelessly sacrifice to provide support for families in crisis,” spokesman Bryan Black said. “We will relentlessly pursue every avenue to defend the most vulnerable in our society and provide a better tomorrow for victims of abuse and neglect.”

Red flags

If the state’s own metrics are any indication, that better tomorrow won’t be any time soon.

When Leiliana was killed, CPS officials knew the Dallas office was in trouble. For the past two years, the agency has run predictive analytics that find “hot spots” where kids are at greater risk due to factors such as caseworker turnover, lack of experienced supervisors and the number of cases that have been unresolved for more than 45 days.

Counties are assigned a color. Green is good, yellow indicates moderate risk, orange is high risk and red is the highest concern.

Last fall, as Dallas County CPS investigators began quitting in record numbers, the county went from yellow to orange, agency spreadsheets show. The state sent in eight “master investigators” and three savvy supervisors to help.

But conditions didn’t stabilize, and by January, Dallas went red. It stayed red in February and March, despite a move to import 65 investigators from other regions.

Months ago, as CPS quietly gathered increasingly foreboding metrics and talked in far-flung office buildings with Abbott’s staff, an overworked caseworker named Claudell Banks was supposed to check on Leiliana.

He didn’t, records show. After 72 hours, Leiliana became one more number in the not seen column, where she stayed for more than a month. When a child abuse investigator did finally check on her, 36 days later, he noted her black eye, but left her in the care of her mother, Jeri Quezada, who had a history of drug abuse and previous run-ins with CPS.

Records show that later, a nurse at a Dallas child abuse clinic called Banks, who was juggling 70 cases and had been reprimanded for his growing backlog of families whom he hadn’t visited.

Banks didn’t respond, records indicate. He has declined repeated requests to discuss the case and, according to CPS, has since been dismissed from the job.

Leiliana went home with her mother, unseen by CPS. She would remain unseen until the early morning of March 13, when paramedics found her dead in the bathroom of the home of Charles Phifer, her mother’s boyfriend.

Quezada told police that her daughter had that night been subjected to a series of abuses by Phifer: tied up by her wrists, choked, thrown in a closet, force-fed until she vomited, her head slammed into a wall so hard it left an indention in the drywall.

Leiliana, despite clear signs of abuse, was classified as a Priority 2.

The day after Quezada and Phifer were charged in her death, CPS ran a report showing the number of past-due Dallas County cases where a child hadn’t yet been seen: 365.

‘Ticking time bombs’

Amber Davila knows firsthand the daily pressures and seemingly minute decisions that stack up and could cascade into such a fatal mistake. She was Banks’ supervisor, and while documents show she raised concerns about his performance, Davila was fired after Leiliana’s case made headlines. Banks was fired from the agency March 23.

When The News told her the data shows thousands of the most at-risk kids aren’t being seen, she said, “Wow.”

“It’s very concerning,” Davila said. “But there’s also a lot to it.”

Davila said she noticed caseworkers under her purview were stacking up delinquent Priority 2 cases, where they hadn’t gone to see a kid in person within the 72-hour window. Part of the reason, she said, was that they were inundated with Priority 1 cases, which require caseworkers to visit within 24 hours.

The result: Priority 2 cases languish as caseworkers play whack-a-mole with the higher risk cases, which are flooding in too fast to keep up with.

“There’s not enough time in the day and not enough caseworkers to manage all these kids,” Davila said. “We’re just getting too many cases per caseworker, and we’re drowning. We need more funding for workers.”

Davila said she can’t speak specifically about Leiliana’s case because the agency is investigating her death. But with so many delinquent cases, Davila said she fears the worst isn’t over.

“All these cases that we get, they’re ticking time bombs,” she said. “Any one of these cases could be another Leiliana Wright.”

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