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Nigeria case furthers scrutiny of Texas' Child Protective Services


Nigeria case furthers scrutiny of Texas' Child Protective Services

Latest crack in faulty system

Nigeria case furthers scrutiny of child services


Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle | August 29, 2004

Mercury Liggins passed the adoption test again and again, sailing through one home study after another, each concluding she was a fit mother to care for hard-to-place children.

Yet Liggins' seven state-subsidized adopted children found abandoned at a Nigerian orphanage tell a different story, news that couldn't come at a worse time for Texas' Child Protective Services agency.

The Department of Family and Protective Services' broken foster care system was already the subject of a highly critical probe by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn this year.

Now, Liggins' case and the adoption system itself will be scrutinized as part of a top-to-bottom investigation of the agency by the Health and Human Services Commission's Office of Inspector General, said commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman.

Investigators should keep in mind that adoptions rarely fail as dramatically as they apparently did in the Liggins case, said one judge who's overseen countless child abuse cases and signed off on thousands of adoptions.

"Anytime there's a disastrous case in child welfare or anywhere else, we need to look at it. If it's an individual in the system that's failed, there's nothing wrong with the system," said Bexar County District Judge John Specia, who frequently testifies in legislative hearings on Child Protective Services.

Yet Specia noted that Liggins, who over the years adopted nine children, underwent more than one screening known as the "social" or "home" study.

It is this study, above all others, that judges most rely upon when deciding if an adoptive family is suitable, experts say.

"The social study is designed to tease out any problems with respect to the adoptive parents," Specia said. "If the social study misses things, that's the primary place where things can go wrong. I'm only as good as the information I get."

Pressed for time

Former Travis County District Judge F. Scott McCown, whose petition in 1998 resulted in the hiring of more CPS caseworkers, said the state continues to underfund its child welfare system, ranking 48th in the nation.

Home studies can go wrong, he said, if workers have too many to conduct under tight time constraints. And courts sometimes are under pressure to keep dockets moving, he said.

"They don't always uncover everything," said McCown, now the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin think tank. "Our judges have way too many cases, but they don't have but minutes to spend on cases they should be spending hours on."

Passed in the past

Liggins passed muster for two private adoptions in Fort Worth before she was screened and approved for four CPS children in Fort Bend County in 1996 and three in Dallas County in 2001. The last two screenings were conducted by Spaulding for Children, a private nonprofit agency in Houston that contracts with the state for foster care and adoptive services. The first two children adopted are living with an ex-husband and were not taken to Nigeria.

Vikki Finley, the interim president and chief executive officer of Spaulding for Children, would not talk specifically about the Liggins case. But she said the agency's process for screening families and conducting home studies is extensive.

According to the Department of Family and Protective Services, inspectors have never found shortcomings with Spaulding's home studies.

Mostly successful

Finley said her 27-year-old agency facilitates about 100 adoptions a year, "and 98 percent of these adoptions are hugely successful." Spaulding is one of seven private Texas agencies that contracts with the Harris County CPS to recruit families for adoptions.

Last year, 2,444 CPS children were adopted in Texas, and nearly 75 percent of them went to families recruited by the agency itself.

The Liggins adoptions are not the only ones that have come back to haunt CPS and the private agencies that helped recruit and screen the families.

In March 2000, an 8-year-old Tarkington boy was beaten to death with a baseball bat by his adoptive mother. The woman, Edith Beebe, was sentenced to 75 years in prison after she was found guilty of killing her son and seriously injuring three of the other five children she had adopted.

Amid all the scrutiny of CPS, some private adoption agencies are rallying around a call for dramatic changes in the system, saying the agency should get out of the adoption business and focus on regulation. Richard Laballo, a lawyer at Advocacy Inc., said he hopes the inspector general will study "collector families," who adopt large numbers of hard-to-place children and get paid a subsidy for each.



2004 Aug 29