Texas’ Child Protective Services Fails . . . Again
May 4, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Pulitzer Prize-winning Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg wrote a heartbreaking article over the weekend detailing yet another failure of the Texas Child Protective Services. Controversy and intense criticism are nothing new for the beleaguered agency, which is tasked with investigating all allegations of child abuse or neglect in the state. Normally, those criticisms are leveled for CPS’s failures to respond appropriately when children are in danger.
In 2015, at least a dozen Texas Child Protective Services workers were accused of faking portions of their case records, making it look as if they visited endangered children when they actually did not, reviews by state investigators found.
In 10 cases in which children died, workers failed to make timely visits to children and families, according to inquiries conducted by the Health and Human Services Commission’s inspector general.
The case profiled by Falkenberg does not cover CPS’s failure to act. Rather, it details the anguish of a qualified and loving foster couple that lost two of their foster children to a bureaucracy seemingly devoid of reason. Angela Sugarek, the principal of a middle school in Houston, and her wife, Carol Jeffrey, an elementary school science teacher, had taken in two brothers, “Dion,” age three, and “Darius,” age four. Both boys showed obvious signs of abuse from previous experiences, but, as Falkenberg noted, the boys “hit the jackpot” when they were taken in by the two educators.
At their lovely North Lindale bungalow, the boys had every comfort. If they weren’t riding scooters or swinging from the ancient magnolia in the front yard, they were tending the chickens that lived in colorfully painted coops their moms built from scratch. They watched the caterpillars chomp the milkweed in their beloved butterfly garden.
Trouble in the newfound paradise began when Sugarek and Jeffrey attempted to facilitate Dion and Darius spending time with their teenage half-brother, “Bobby,” who was also in foster care.
Knowing that CPS strongly prioritizes keeping siblings together, Sugarek and Jeffrey in October asked to increase the number of children they’d accept from two to three. They considered adding a room to their house.
Soon after reuniting the younger boys with their older brother, there were strong indications that Bobby might be sexually abusing both boys. Initially, there were circumstantial incidents that caused Sugarek and Jeffrey concern, but they were warned by CPS workers not to make any allegations of sexual abuse against Bobby unless they had personally witnessed it. Still, both women persisted in seeking an investigation into the abuse, only to be denied. Then, things went from bad to worse.
All three boys attended a CPS-supervised adoption fair earlier this month. When they returned, the moms say Darius told them Bobby had taken Dion to the bathroom for a long time. The 3-year-old complained his backside hurt. He wouldn’t let his moms wipe him. Days later, after a swim lesson, he bent down in the changing room, revealing a swollen rectum.
Despite being warned that CPS would take the children away from them if allegations were made of sexual abuse, Sugarek and Jeffrey reported their concerns about Bobby’s abuse. As predicted, CPS took the boys away on April 7th. As of this writing, they remain in CPS custody.
As Sugarek and Jeffrey prepare to mount a legal battle for custody of Dion and Darius, the sad fact is that those familiar with CPS are not surprised by the agency’s latest counterproductive maneuver. The agency functions like a drunk uncle that receives an obligatory invitation to a party where no one really desires his attendance. They are notorious for underreacting in situations that involve true danger to children, while overreacting in situations that don’t. The incidents where CPS is known to have provided true and meaningful “protection” are far less common.
In criminal cases involving allegations of harm to children, CPS can often be found hovering around the periphery. Under best-case scenarios, they perform as harmless observers who merely “document” for their records, while police agencies investigate. In more harmful scenarios, they have been known to insert themselves into situations like a schoolyard bully, with the power to break apart families.
Several years ago, I defended a man on charges of Injury to a Child. The circumstances involved him physically restraining a teenage son who had become physically violent toward the rest of the family. Ultimately, the prosecutors saw the case as reasonable discipline, and they dismissed charges. Unfortunately, CPS had taken away my client’s two younger children from him and his wife, even though there were no allegations of any harm coming to those children. My client spent the better part of a year fighting for the reunification of his family. CPS’s involvement hung around much longer than the criminal case.
Conversely, as a prosecutor, I handled a case where a small boy was beaten and shaken by his mother’s boyfriend to the point that it caused brain damage. CPS never took any action to remove the boy from his mother’s custody. When the boyfriend made bond, the mother once again let him have access to the child. The child didn’t survive his injuries the next time.
Although long overdue, CPS has finally found itself in the crosshairs of both the Texas Legislature and the Federal Courts. In December of 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jacks ruled in favor of nine children suing CPS for violating the 14th Amendment.
“Texas’ foster care system is broken, and it has been that way for decades,” Jack wrote. “It is broken for all stakeholders, including DFPS employees who are tasked with impossible workloads. Most importantly, though, it is broken for Texas’ [permanent managing conservatorship] children, who almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”
If CPS was merely an ineffective organization, their constant missteps could almost be considered comical. Unfortunately, “ineffective” appears to be a far too generous description, as the agency consistently does more harm than good. Last week, the Texas Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee held hearings on the best way to fix the utterly broken agency, debating whether the solution was “more funding and higher pay for caseworkers, or simply better management” for the agency.
Sadly, the option of completely dismantling the agency and rebuilding it from the ground up does not seem to be on the table.