Earlier this week, a Texas grandmother was charged in the scalding death of her 2-year-old grandson. The child died, doctors say, after he succumbed to an infection from hot water burns that went untreated for days.
The state’s Child Protective Services is at the center of the firestorm – the agency placed the child in the grandmother’s custody just weeks before his death. It’s a story that is becoming increasingly common. Children are dying under the state’s care.
A federal court in December ruled Texas’ child protective services department is unconstitutionally unsafe. Since that ruling, top administrators have resigned – including the commissioner for the Department of Family and Protective Services, the agency that governs CPS. Although Gov. Greg Abbott has appointed a replacement, some say changing who’s in charge isn’t enough.
F. Scott McCown is a former state district judge. Now he’s a clinical professor and director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. McCown says we’ve been here before. Every three years or so the state appoints a new commissioner for the agency, but that’s not addressing what the system really needs.
It’s not fair to saddle the blame of these child deaths on CPS, McCown says. Instead, it’s about a systemic lack of resources.
“We have lots of kids in Texas. We have high poverty,” McCown says. “We have, unfortunately, a significant amount of abuse and neglect. We don’t have an agency that’s scaled up to the size it needs to be to respond to that. So there’s going to be tragedies.”
But the appropriate form of help may be coming. Texas Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Strauss this week said fixing the system will be top of the agenda for lawmakers when they return to the capitol for the 2017 legislative session.
“He’s the first state leader who’s even hinted at additional resources for CPS,” McCown says. “The steps the governor’s taken may be helpful, but they’re not going to do it by themselves. Just sending in a single Texas Ranger to an agency this big in a state this large, without giving the resources to do the job, isn’t gonna do the trick.”
Former head of the Texas Rangers Henry “Hank” Whitman is somewhat of an odd fit for an organization that is primarily social work, McCown says. That’s not the type of background a criminal law enforcement officer has.
“I will say this though,” McCown says. “There’s a mystique about the Texas Rangers. If he can use his credibility with the Legislature to say ‘I’ve looked at this and this is what it’s gonna take to do the job,’ and secure those resources and then properly use them … it can make a difference.”
But overall there’s a need for action, not talk, McCown says.
“What we’ve had so far is talk, not action,” he says. “Our foster care system is woefully underfunded.”
There’s a new foster care reform initiative in Fort Worth that’s had some success, but the private companies in charge of facilitating the changes have had to put forth community money, alongside the minimal amount of state money, to fund their efforts.
“If we wanna change we’re gonna have to pay for it,” McCown says. “We know what’s broke and it’s not that hard to fix it. It just takes hundreds of millions of additional dollars.”
The state lacks the appropriate number of foster homes to care for children taken from their home for abuse and neglect. Caseloads are higher than recommended. Caseworker pay is low and turnover rates are high.
“We need to pay them like we’re paying Texas Rangers,” McCown says. “Then you would see turnover stabilize. That would allow you to get your caseloads reduced so that the work would become manageable. That would further reduce turnover. So we know what the solutions are, we’ve just been unwilling to fund them.”
This post prepared for web by Beth Cortez-Neavel.