October 30, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The death toll of children in foster care in Texas is already almost at record levels and it’s only the second month of the fiscal year. Last fiscal year (September 1 – August 1), eight children died in foster care in the Lone Star State. That itself was a record, but just since September 1, 2013, five have died.
That comes against a backdrop of severe budget cuts that led to the reductions in the number of caseworkers that in turn led to dramatic increases in caseloads for those who remain. Throughout the state, case after case has come to light in which caseworkers allowed children to be seriously injured or killed even after they had been brought to the attention of Child Protective Services.
Here’s the latest (KXAN, 10/25/13). An 11-month old girl, Orien Hamilton, was placed in the foster “care” of her aunt by local CPS caseworkers. At her birth, her mother had tested positive for methamphetamine and a test of the infant’s blood showed that she too had the drug in her system. So CPS turned the child over to her mother’s sister.
But Orien’s father raised the alarm with CPS that a man who was living with the aunt was a danger to his child. CPS went as far as asking the aunt, Heather Hamilton, if it were true that Jacob Salas were living with her. On being assured that he was not, the caseworker went away and never came back. That was true despite the fact that a background check on Salas revealed several family violence charges against him.
"The baby was born with methamphetamine in her system, and her mother also tested positive in the hospital," said Julie Moody with The Department of Family Protective Services.
CPS says the child's biological father alerted them in September that he was concerned about who was also living in the home with his daughter.
"The biological father had concerns that Jacob Salas was living in the home with his daughter and stated those concerns to the CPS case worker," Moody said.
CPS says the case worker followed protocol and did a background check on Salas. That background check turned up several red flags including two family violence charges.
According to CPS, the case worker responded to Heather Hamilton's home within 24 hours of receiving the complaint and asked Hamilton if Salas was living there, but officials say she lied.
"At that particular time she said that he was not living with her and he was actually out of state," Moody said. Salas now faces charges in Orien's death after he allegedly crushed the child's head on Saturday.
"It is probably something that we did miss," Moody said, "but we can only do the best job we can possibly do with the information given to us."
That’s true of course, and a state that believes it can do as good a job of protecting children with fewer caseworkers as it can with more is a state that’s (a) kidding itself and (b) asking for deaths of more children. Did CPS drop the ball in this case? Obviously it did. Orien’s dad complained, but caseworkers just took Hamilton’s word for it that Salas wasn’t there. Would they have done a more thorough investigation if they’d had fewer cases to deal with? We’ll never know, but they certainly could have.
And therein lies the rub. This is CPS’s wrongdoing, but the state legislature deserves a big helping of the responsibility. Cutting budgetary corners at the expense of the most vulnerable of the state’s children, i.e. those with irresponsible or dangerous parents, has a predictable result – killed and injured children. Memo to the Lege: that we’re well on the way to a record number of child deaths in foster care is as much your doing as that of CPS.
The data have been clear for many years. Mothers are the perpetrators in about 40% of child abuse and neglect cases according to the Administration for Children and Families. Add a boyfriend to the mix and you increase the total to almost 60% of all cases. By contrast, fathers acting alone are responsible for about 18 – 20% of cases.
So when Orien’s father alerted CPS to the danger posed by Jacob Salas living in the same house with his daughter, the data strongly suggest the caseworker should have paid more attention than he/she did.
But of course there’s the other question of why Orien wasn’t in her father’s care. There may have been a good reason for that, but so far no one’s provided one. Again, the data indicate children are safer with their fathers than with a mother and her boyfriend, but, astonishingly, agencies across the country charged with protecting children are loath to contact fathers about placement. They overwhelmingly prefer foster care to father care, despite the fact that the latter is safer and less traumatic for children.
Back in 2006, the Urban Institute released a study on CPS caseworkers’ behavior regarding fathers when they’d determined the mother to be unfit as a parent. Amazingly, even when caseworkers knew the father’s whereabouts, they failed to even attempt to contact him in over half the cases. That’s true despite the fact that placing a child with its father would be far less expensive to the state and, in all probability, better for the child. But in the large majority of cases, the father was entirely ignored as a placement alternative for his child.
Did that happen in Orien Hamilton’s case? Who knows? All we know now is that the sister of a methamphetamine-abusing mother was CPS’s placement of choice. That, and of course, the tragic results of that decision.
Now, what’s also true is that the federal government encourages states to channel children into foster care. It does that by paying a hefty bounty on every child adopted out of foster care. States get no money from Washington for placing children with their fathers, but receive between $5,000 and $11,000 for those adopted out of foster care. Needless to say, if the kids never go into foster care, they can’t be adopted out of it. Therefore, there’s a tremendous impetus for states to bypass fathers when mothers prove unfit to care for their children.
And sure enough, that federal incentive to place children in foster care has its effects. As I wrote here, one former South Dakota government official put it bluntly to NPR two years ago (NPO, 10/28/11).
Bill Napoli chaired the state Senate Appropriations Committee until he retired three years ago. He says he remembers when the state first saw the large amounts of money the federal government was sending the Department of Social Services in the late 1990s.
"When that money came down the pike, it was huge," Napoli says. "That's when we saw a real influx of kids being taken out of families."
He said there was little lawmakers could do to rein in the department. This was federal money, and it went straight to social services.
"I'm sure they were trying to answer a public perception of a problem," he said. "And then slowly it grew to a point where they had so much power that no one -- no one -- could question what they were doing. Is that a recipe for a bureaucracy that's totally out of control? I would say so."
“When we that money came down the pike, it was huge. That’s when we saw a real influx of kids being taken out of families.” Remember those words. They explain a lot about what’s going on today with families and CPS. They explain the intrusiveness of child welfare agencies into family life that often bears little relation to children’s safety (see, e.g. the removal of children from parents whose only “crime” is their legal medical use of marijuana.) And they explain the readiness of caseworkers to marginalize fathers in the lives of their children.
And of course they explain a lot about what can be done to correct the situation. Stop the flow of federal money and you’ll do a lot to curtail the abuses of families by CPS.
In Texas it’s gotten so bad that the Inspector General of the state agency that oversees CPS has promised to investigate. What do you suppose the chances are that investigation will identify the massive influx of federal dollars as any part of the problem?
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