Erica Bright was around 12 years old when she reported being abused at home. It started years earlier.
“I was groomed early on, as early as first grade, to keep it a secret, to not tell anybody about it,” Bright said. “That if I did, it would be my fault, and I would ruin my family.”
When the abuse escalated, Bright told someone she wasn’t safe. Her church intervened and the case was reported to Child Protective Services. She spent time in children’s homes and foster care. It was a hard experience. She met other kids whose stories, she said, she’ll never forget. In a rare situation, Bright was adopted as a teenager.
Lubbock County has the second-highest rate of cases in the state, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The number of confirmed cases dropped 25% last year compared to 2021, and those who work on this issue are looking for explanations.
Bright is now a speech therapist with three kids of her own. She also runs a nonprofit called Reclaimed 43, which works with young adults aging out of the foster care system. She’s seen concerning situations in her work, and because of her experience, she tries to help.
“I’ve had to call CPS several times and been told that’s just not enough evidence,” Bright said.
Laws that the Texas Legislature passed last session changed how child abuse is defined. Basically, the threshold for abuse is now higher.
Carla Olson is the executive director of The Parenting Cottage and serves on the South Plains Coalition for Child Abuse Prevention. She explained that suspecting child abuse used to be enough to intervene.
“The legal interpretation of it now is, it’s imminent. Like, before I leave, I’m going to see this happen,” Olson said. “For people who actually work in the field, you see the warning signs long before it happens.”
According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, 734 cases of abuse or neglect were investigated and confirmed in Lubbock County last year. That’s down from 970 cases in 2021 and 1,032 cases in 2017. But the number of unconfirmed cases has remained fairly consistent over the past five years. Last year, 2,965 reports were investigated, but abuse was either ruled out or indeterminable. Compare that to 2,780 unconfirmed cases in 2021 and 3,000 in 2017.
Olson thinks this legal definition change contributed to the drop in confirmed cases.
“That’s not how we should treat our children,” Olson said. “That’s not the best outcome for the children.”
Cristian Garcia is the chief advancement officer at Saint Francis Ministries, which is contracted to handle foster care cases in the Lubbock region. Along with a decrease in reported abuse cases, he said the number of kids entering the foster care system is also going down.
He has a few theories on why we’re seeing these trends. One is a focus on prevention efforts.
“Instead of states removing children, saying, ‘This is the best situation for them,’” Garcia said, “they’re really looking at the entire situation and saying, ‘Is there anything we can do prior to?’”
Another aspect he’s thought about was the increased aid offered during the pandemic. An example would be additional funding for food assistance programs. Garcia said that eased stress on families in poverty, who represent a majority of those he works with.
“There was a lot of funding through the federal government that gave states the ability to really kind of put a bandaid towards poverty and things that are happening in a family dynamic,” Garcia said.
But those benefits were only temporary. Garcia said he’s following how data changes as financial assistance and the economy shifts.
The most recent federal data shows the number of child abuse investigations and victims is decreasing.
Still, a two-month-old infant who had injuries consistent with abuse died in Lubbock just last week. There were two child abuse and neglect deaths in Lubbock County last year.