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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

October 6, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

In Austin, the capital of Texas, three Child Protective Services employees have been fired and another has resigned in the wake of the death of toddler Colton Turner who was apparently killed by his mother, Meagan Work and her boyfriend, Michael Turner. The two had a long history of abusing the child and numerous complaints by various people were in the hands of CPS caseworkers, but nothing was done to protect the boy. Here’s the latest article by Robert T. Garrett of the Dallas Morning News (Dallas Morning News, 10/2/14). Garrett looks to me to be the best journalist in Texas writing about the follies and foibles of the state’s CPS. He not only gets his facts right, but has the knowledge of the agency to provide the type of background without which individual tragedies like Colton’s make little sense to average readers. Kudos to Garrett.

After apparently abusing him for at least two years, Colton finally died, and Work and Turner fled police and CPS and buried the little body in a shallow grave. That was September 12. They’ve since been arrested but so far charged only with tampering with evidence.

Work and Turner look to be the main ones responsible for Colton’s abuse and death, but multiple failures of CPS caseworkers over at least a year also contributed. They were responsible for protecting him, knew he was in danger and failed to do their job — intervene. Now three of them have been fired and one has resigned, apparently in lieu of being discharged.

Texas Child Protective Services leaders have fired an inexperienced child-abuse investigator, her supervisor and their mid-level manager for botching the agency’s handling of the last two of six tips in the past two years that an Austin-area toddler named Colton Turner was being reared by a drug-abusing mother and mistreated by the mother’s boyfriend.

Airing its dirty laundry, CPS released an internal review Thursday that found its four separate probes of the boy’s welfare since July 2012 were slow to be launched and in each instance marred by “unacceptable” omissions and bad decisions.

“In all of those investigations, there were failures to follow policy as well as mistakes in judgment by caseworkers and/or supervisory personnel,” the review said. “As a result, CPS failed to protect Colton Turner.”…

The CPS review of its failed investigations speaks of photos of the boy that, while mentioned in caseworkers’ narratives, were missing from his case file; repeated failures to check with Work’s neighbors or relatives, which in CPS parlance are called “collateral” interviews, to confirm her accounts; and failures on two separate occasions to check out tipsters’ concerns about possible sexual abuse. In extensive coverage of the case in the Austin news media, there has been little reference to possible sexual abuse. Stories mentioned reports of cuts and bruises on Colton’s body, including what the review calls “physical evidence in the form of photos on the mother’s Facebook page.”

In the most recent CPS investigation, launched in late May, “There was no urgency demonstrated by the worker, supervisor and program director about whether Colton was safe.”

Of a June 2013 probe, which dragged on until this past March, the review said, “CPS did not exhaust every resource to locate Colton.”

The department fired three employees involved in the probe begun in late May: Child-abuse investigator Diana Cortinaz, who was hired in March 2012 and as of last month had not seen children and families in 19 of her 31 assigned cases; supervisor Liza DeLeon, hired in 2007 and described in a termination document as “negligent,” with her actions hurting public confidence in CPS; and program director Liza Nash, hired in 2005 and chided in her discharge memo for knowing that Cortinaz and another caseworker were not hustling to see all the kids in their cases and yet “failed to report children not being seen to PA” — or program administrator Irina Meza, her immediate boss.

Horrible as Colton’s abuse and death are, it’s at least good to see CPS taking responsibility — and public responsibility at that — for its incompetence. It’s about time. With CPS agencies across the country, the response to criticism too often amounts to defensiveness and buck-passing. Do the firings indicate a new willingness to discipline negligent employees? We can only hope. I’d say it’s at least a fair possibility for the very reason that CPS is doing so much to make its actions public. It’s as if they’re using the press to let all employees know what can happen if they do what Cortinaz, Nash, DeLeon and Stewart did — or didn’t do.

At the same time, just how much responsibility is on display here? Yes, the heads of those lowest (and in Nash’s case, next-to-lowest) on the CPS totem pole have rolled as they probably should. But much about the criticism of their job performance suggests what we’ve always known about Texas CPS and that the four women had nothing to do with. Throughout the agency, the turnover of employees is sky-high meaning those who remain are often too inexperienced to effectively differentiate between cases that need close, persistent attention and those that don’t.

Then of course there’s the problem of overwork. Texas caseworkers are routinely handed over twice the number of cases recommended by industry standards. So how shocked are we to learn that an abused little boy died in part because CPS didn’t pay enough attention to his needs? Colton’s caseworkers should have done more. Indeed, they should have done more for all of their cases, but at some point they’re given more than they can do and children suffer the consequences. If we’re truly looking for someone to bear responsibility for Colton Turner’s abuse and death, we should look no further than the Legislature of the State of Texas that seems never to get the message that too-high caseloads constitute a danger to children.

Plus, let’s not forget that, at roughly the same time Colton Turner was being secretly put in the ground by his Work and Turner, CPS caseworkers in another part of the state were visiting the home of Kari Anne Roy. Her crime? She let her six-year-old son play outdoors within easy eyesight of her house. She knew exactly where he was and what he was doing, but someone called CPS that was therefore required to investigate a situation in which no child was being abused or neglected and no parent was behaving badly.

The point? Last year, the Administration for Children and Families that collects and analyzes data from 48 of the state child welfare agencies in the country, revealed that those agencies received over 3.2 million complaints. Of those, only 686,000 actually involved abused or neglected children. Many didn’t even warrant investigation. So about 79% of all complaints to CPS didn’t need to be made, but were.

So, given that those agencies are chronically underfunded and understaffed, how much valuable time was spent by caseworkers checking out the Kari Anne Roys of the country? And how much of that time could have been spent doing a better job of investigating the brutality being visited on Colton Turner?

I think there’s a growing sense that we’re too ready to believe that children are in danger. Some unfortunately are and we have to be vigilant for their protection. But our system of mandated reporters virtually assures the type of extreme over-reporting to CPS of the type Kari Anne Roy experienced. When we threaten people like teachers, teachers’ aides, police, fire fighters, doctors, nurses, EMTs and the like with the loss of their jobs for failing to report to CPS children who may be at risk it’s no surprise that far more complaints land on the desks of caseworkers.

And when we see a daily narrative in the press and popular culture about the danger children are in, when overwhelmingly America’s kids are safe, we can pretty much expect everyday people to respond when they see a child playing alone in a park.

Since the early 80s when the wave of utterly fraudulent claims about sadistic sex cults involving children’s abuse by adults that supposedly permeated society, particularly in daycare made the news, we’ve had an unhealthy certainty that children are far more at risk than they actually are. And it seems no amount of debunking those stories did much to damp the enthusiasm for that narrative that continues, albeit in altered form, to this day.

The result has been an expansion of governmental power into the home and lives of Americans who are no danger to their kids or anyone else. We need to start delivering the good news — that America’s children are safer than they’ve ever been. We need to limit what mandated reporters are required to report to CPS. And we need CPS to take a less intrusive, less police-state approach to what it does. CPS needs to remember the last word in its own name and start providing services to parents who need them instead of jailing every mom or dad who’s the least deficient in parenting skills.

The alternative is ever higher bills to pay for CPS with ever more parents living in fear of the knock on the door.

But none of that will happen any time soon in Texas whose legislature is bent on piling more and more work on fewer and fewer caseworkers and then pointing the finger elsewhere when a little boy dies.

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