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July 31, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

As I’ve reported before several times, back in August, 2012, Tiffany Klapheke became so upset about her boyfriend’s redeployment overseas that she walked away and left her three children, all of whom were under five years old. No one is quite sure just how long she was gone, but it was long enough for her 22-month-old daughter, Tamryn to die of dehydration. Her two other children managed to survive, but barely. Klapheke was tried last February, convicted of child endangerment resulting in death and sentenced to serve 30 years behind bars.

But immediately after the children were discovered, the attention of the press and law enforcement officials focused on the local Taylor County, Texas (Abilene) Child Protective Services. Records showed that Klapheke had been investigated by CPS a year previously for neglecting her children and, in violation of CPS protocol, the case had been closed with no follow-up. Tragically, Tamryn died six days after CPS closed the file.

That lit a fire under CPS caseworkers, supervisors and its Regional Director. Did they launch an investigation into what had gone wrong? Did they put forward recommendations to attempt to ensure that such an oversight would never occur again? No, those would have been responsible actions. Instead, they did the classic bureaucratic thing; they tried to cover up CPS wrongdoing. That apparently included altering documents and hiding others.

Abilene police investigators were not pleased. Neither was a state district judge who took the unusual step of appointing a special prosecutor to look into the CPS shenanigans. That special prosecutor was the McLennan County (Waco) District Attorney’s Office. We’re now seeing the first results of the special prosecutor’s investigation here (KTXS, 7/27/14).

An ex-Child Protective Services regional director was arrested Saturday on a tampering with physical evidence charge in connection with her former agency's alleged mishandling of a highly publicized 2012 child death case.

Martha Kiel "Bit" Whitaker, 58, of Abilene has been charged for a third-degree felony offense that allegedly occurred on Aug. 29, 2012, jail records show. Her bond was set at $1,000. She has been released. A third-degree felony charge carries a potential sentence of two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

It looks like she’s not the only one. The same grand jury that indicted Whitaker is looking at others too.

While Abilene police named Whitaker and former CPS supervisors Gretchen Denny and Barbara McDaniel as suspects in the investigation before police handed the case over to the McLennan County DA's Office, it hasn't been made public which names were recently submitted to the grand jury.

Whitaker and Denny were put on paid administrative leave for several months during the early stages of the investigation. While Whitaker resigned, Denny was dismissed. Attorneys for Whitaker and Denny made motions to protect the pair from testifying in Klapheke's February trial because of the pending investigation of CPS.

Then there’s Howard Baldwin. It’s probably no coincidence that the man who led the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the agency that oversees Child Protective Services, resigned his post just over two months after Tamryn Klapheke’s death and the beginning of the investigation into Taylor County CPS officials. My guess at the time was that he saw the writing on the wall and figured he didn’t need the grief being in the public spotlight would inevitably entail.

The grand jury is still at work, so we’ll see what comes next.

Clearly, there’s no excuse for illegally covering up a fatal case of bureaucratic incompetence. But bad as this case is on the part of CPS, it’s worth remembering that it came about because someone failed to conduct a follow-up visit of a mother who was known to the agency to be a danger to her kids. Would Tamryn be alive today if that visit had taken place? There’s no way of knowing. But the reason Whitaker is facing criminal charges is her and probably others’ decision to stonewall the police. They did that because a caseworker had failed to do his/her job.

So the nut of the matter is why that person failed to follow up with the Klapheke family. The answer almost certainly is the same one we see in Texas time and again as well as in other states like California, New York, Arizona and New Mexico. The answer is understaffing. I can’t count the number of posts I’ve done on cases that hinge on that one thing. On average, Texas CPS caseworkers are saddled with about twice the number of cases called for by industry standards.

Into the bargain, those caseworkers are likely to be undertrained and under-experienced. That’s because the turnover of caseworkers is so high. As I reported here, a recent review of CPS statewide found a whopping 25.5% turnover of caseworkers in a single year. That was some 1,300 CPS employees. With that many people going out the door and a similar number coming in with no experience, is it really a surprise that someone failed to pay a follow-up visit to Tiffany Klapheke to see if she was behaving like a responsible parent? The plain truth is that something similar happens every day, probably several times a day in a state the size of Texas. The fact that we don’t hear about it more is that, fortunately, children don’t die most of the time.

We can conduct as many studies as we want. We can investigate till we’re blue in the face. And often as not, when we do, we’ll find malfeasance among CPS employees. When we do, we’re right to discipline them and, where appropriate, send them to prison. But until we do one thing – one obvious thing – we’re just going through the motions to convince ourselves that we’re willing to do what’s necessary to keep children safe.  Until we budget enough money to pay child protective workers a decent wage that will keep them in their jobs, lower turnover rates, mean caseworkers have sufficient experience and reasonable caseloads, we will be proving again, for the umpteenth time, that children’s well-being isn’t nearly as important to us as we claim.

It’s an attitude that’s all too prevalent. Every time there’s a case like that of little Tamryn Klapheke, we get out the pitchforks and torches and go find someone to blame. We never admit that that someone is us. Coincidentally, the KTXS article demonstrates a bit of that attitude itself.

The case has been somewhat of a black eye for CPS.

A black eye. Tamryn Klapheke should have been so lucky.


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