CPS home removals decrease; critics question accountability
Dallas County agency counsels, steers parents to counseling
The Dallas Morning News
The number of abused and neglected children removed from their homes is down almost 50 percent in Dallas County from the first half of last year as Child Protective Services places more children with relatives and steers their parents to counseling.
CPS officials said the shift to assign more cases to Family Based Safety Services – such as drug and alcohol treatment, mental health counseling and parenting classes – will help prevent abuse and neglect by addressing a family's underlying problems before a child gets hurt.
But even Dallas family court judges and child safety advocates who agree that the changes might save lives said they worry that social workers will be too busy to give the families the attention they need.
"The only risk that you have right now that scares me quite frankly is that the Family Based Safety caseloads are out of control," said Madeline McClure, who runs TexProtects, a Dallas advocacy group for abused and neglected children.
"These families need intensive monitoring and intensive services, so if we don't add enough FBSS workers, we're leaving some of these kids in risky situations."
For an agency with a recent record of not responding to warning signs of abuse, deaths in foster care and children sleeping in offices because of a foster home shortage, it's not surprising to find critics.
On the surface, leaving children in homes where investigators have found neglect or leaving them with the relatives of an abusive parent doesn't seem like the safest approach.
But CPS officials said recent measures passed by the Legislature have allowed them to reduce investigator caseloads (from an average of 44 a day to 26), spend more time with families and find better ways to deal with less-serious neglect cases, such as when a briefly unsupervised child wanders away from home, which often led to removal.
In the past, investigators were so swamped that they often just removed a child for fear that something would happen before their next visit, CPS officials said.
"When you're an investigator and you're going from family to family to family ... you don't have time to really figure out what's going on in that family, so you might just remove," said Colleen McCall, state field director for CPS.
CPS will still remove a child in cases of abuse or severe neglect. But the vast majority of cases – about 71 percent – involve neglectful supervision or situations in which parents fail to provide enough food or take a child to a doctor, according to agency statistics. Many of those cases are now being referred to Family Based Safety Services.
Officials acknowledged that it's too early to know whether the program will be successful. Even though CPS is removing fewer children, the number of abuse and neglect reports remains high.
"There's no silver bullet where you can say if you do this, no child will ever die," CPS spokesman Darrell Azar said. "You can only find ways to make children safer, and we think these changes and this focus on family services will be a positive improvement."
Although Family Based Safety Services isn't new, it is being used much more than in the past.
CPS officials said they have always thought preserving families and involving parents in decisions is the best philosophy. But they said the agency was too short-staffed to devote the time needed to pursue that approach.
A Family Based Safety Services caseworker will often begin with a "family team conference" to encourage relatives, friends and others with influence over the parents to come up with solutions rather than having a caseworker make decisions for them.
CPS might consider whether factors such as poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, or a family's cultural background contributed to the neglect. A caseworker might then talk to the parents about managing their money, personal relationships or sexual behavior and try to hook them up with programs in the community that can help them resolve their issues.
In these cases, CPS will get the parents to voluntarily place a child with a close relative while they get help. A CPS caseworker would then meet with the family several times a month, whereas caseworkers typically visit foster homes about once a month.
The idea is to keep the children's lives stable by allowing them to stay connected to positive influences such as relatives, church and school.
"Children do thrive better in their normal environment," said Ms. McClure of TexProtects, who is also chairwoman of the Dallas County child welfare board. "The last thing you want to do is remove them from the only family they've known. That is highly disruptive and sometimes can be more traumatic than the neglect that warranted the removal to begin with."
In the past, caseworkers would often bring in social services and hold family meetings after taking the family to court to get the kids removed. The thought was that parents would change their behavior to get their kids back.
But the remove-first, solve-problems-later approach didn't always work.
Parents were reluctant to work with CPS after the agency set up an adversarial relationship by taking away their children, said Ms. McCall, the state field director.
Now, CPS wants to strike while the iron is hot.
"When you're in a crisis situation, you're much more likely to change, when you have to think, 'OK, I'm close to having my children removed,' " Ms. McCall said.
But family court judges said they're concerned that the voluntary agreements between caseworkers and parents don't have any teeth. Family Based Safety Services agreements don't come with court orders, meaning CPS doesn't have custody.
"Who monitors if they're attending their drug counseling or batterers intervention program?" asked Dallas family court Judge Lynn Cherry, who represented children as a guardian ad litem before becoming a judge.
The same question was asked in Tyler last week after 4-year-old Jose Aguilar was killed in a drunken-driving crash with his stepfather. His parents were assigned to Family Based Safety Services after previous neglect reports.
Under a CPS safety plan, Jose was left in his mother's care. His stepfather wasn't supposed to be left alone with the children. But those conditions were ignored.
"These cases are being referred to FBSS, who is short-staffed, and they have nothing to prevent the drug-addicted and mentally ill parents from getting their kids," said Judge Carole Clark, a state district judge in Tyler.
Officials there are now backing up the informal safety plans with court orders whenever cases involve a child under 3 in a home with drug and alcohol abuse.
Ms. McCall of CPS said the agency tries to ensure that Family Based Safety Services can watch the families by intentionally keeping their caseloads lower than those of other CPS caseworkers.
According to the most current figures, those caseloads average 20.8 at any given time. Ms. McClure of TexProtects said federal guidelines call for 15.
But help is on the way.
CPS will hire an additional 188 employees to work in Family Based Safety Services and 86 to run family group meetings as a result of budget measures passed by the Legislature this year.
And CPS plans to expand resources, such as financial assistance, job training, GED classes and training for parents on how to keep their house clean, prepare meals and care for a baby.
It's unknown if any of these changes could have prevented the killings of three children in North Texas foster homes in the past two years. Those children were removed from their homes because of neglect and drugs, only to be beaten to death in foster care.
In December, Katherine Frances, 6, was killed by being body-slammed repeatedly by her DeSoto foster brother. She had been removed from her mother after being left alone without electricity and with little food. Her mother said there was a mix-up over who was supposed to be watching the children.
"I don't know all the details," Ms. McClure said. "But I do know in Katherine Frances' case, the FBSS services that are now coming online may have prevented a removal and potentially the death of that young girl."