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April 21, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

In Russian folklore, a troika travelling in winter began to be pursued by hungry wolves. As the wolves drew nearer, the passengers threw out one of their number to slow the wolves down.

Whether or not that ever happened, it’s an apt metaphor for what’s going on inside the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and its sub-agency, Child Protective Services. The only difference between the Russian tale and the Texan reality is that, in Texas, some of the passengers aren’t waiting to be thrown off the sleigh; they’re jumping.

The leader of the pack is Corpus Christi Federal Judge, Janis Jack who last year issued an injunction against DFPS and more recently appointed two special masters to make sweeping recommendations for change. In her ruling, Jack didn’t mince words.

Texas’s foster care system is broken and it has been that way for decades. It is broken for all stakeholders, including DFPS employees who are tasked with impossible workloads. Most importantly, though, it is broken for Texas’s PMC children, who almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered.

Yes, broken – and for decades. The horrors visited on children and caseworkers alike courtesy of that broken system have been chronicled and re-chronicled in great detail over the years and agency heads come and go. But if there’s been any improvement to any aspect of the states’ child welfare authority, it’s escaped notice.

As usual, Problem One is lack of funding. Periodically, the state legislature gets up in arms about the latest scandal or tragedy involving CPS, but, unsurprisingly, elected officials never seem to look in the mirror when searching for the root of the problem. No one would argue that money can fix everything, but by now it has to be admitted that a lack of money can create insoluble problems. Such is the case with Texas CPS.

Lack of money means stratospheric levels of caseloads and too many cases mean caseworkers quit. High turnover rates mean inexperience among caseworkers and that inexperience means mistakes. Mistakes are often tragic because they involve children potentially at risk for abuse or neglect.

One of those recent tragedies involved four-year-old Leiliana Wright of Grand Prairie near Dallas. It seems Leiliana was beaten to death, apparently by her mother and her boyfriend after shooting heroin. Local CPS authorities knew well that Leiliana was in danger. Her grandmother and her father had complained many times, but to no avail. Here’s one story about the sad case (Fox 4, 4/4/16).

Police said Leiliana’s life ended because her mother and her mother’s boyfriend shot up heroin, then beat and tortured her for drinking her brother’s juice. Jeri Quezada and Charles Phifer are now locked up and both charged with felony injury of a child…

“Those that failed her for the last year, year and a half, those agencies who should have listened to us. Maybe this wouldn't have happened,” said Alisa Clakley, her grandmother…

Her biological father also told FOX 4 he saw the warning signs but couldn’t prove it and couldn’t get help because of what he called legal and CPS red tape.

Leiliana’s caseworker? He was buried under an astonishing 70 cases to which he was supposed to give effective, protective attention. That’s about four times industry standards. No wonder he didn’t give Leiliana the protection she needed. That was in March and the first heads in her case have now rolled. One supervisor and one caseworker have been fired and a special investigator resigned in the wake of Leiliana’s death.

But that’s just a tiny sliver of a much larger picture. As I mentioned, Leiliana lived in an area of the state covered by the Dallas Office of CPS. Over the past couple of years, that office has seen an astonishing 57% annual turnover of case workers. As the Stephen Group reported almost three years ago, Texas CPS generally maintains a turnover rate of between 25% and 30% per annum. Needless to say, that is unsustainable in any organization. The Dallas office doubled it.

The state’s emergency response was to pull dozens of caseworkers from around the state to shore up the Dallas office. What that did to the offices that contributed those caseworkers, no one has yet said, but whatever the case, it was at best a thumb in the dike.

But those three departures from a single regional office are just the small fry. Many CPS and DFPS personnel of much higher rank are also jumping off the troika, or being shoved. (Often it’s hard to know which.)

Not long after those three, Jackie Freeman, the top official in the Dallas office of CPs announced her retirement. And last month, the Commissioner of the entire state Department of Family and Protective Services, John Specia resigned. He was the third one in as many years to do so. Along with him went his Chief Deputy, Lisa Black. Then just two weeks ago, two more high level officials – Director of Field Operations, Colleen McCall and Assistant Commissioner of Residential Child Care Licensing, Paul Morris - announced they too would be moving on.

Again, it’s hard to know who’s jumping and who’s being pushed, but in Morris’s case, I think we can be pretty certain. That’s because Judge Jack had this to say about his division (Austin American-Statesman, 4/12/16).

That division was harshly criticized by U.S. District Judge Janis Jack, who ruled in December that CPS needed a massive overhaul to protect children from danger.

In her ruling, Jack said that Morris’ division made mistakes regarding abuse or neglect in a majority of its decisions.

“This is staggering, and it means that many abused children—for whom a preponderance of evidence indicated that they were physically abused, sexually abused, or neglected—go untreated and could be left in abusive placements,” Jack wrote.

Mistakes in more than half of its decisions? It’s hard to get more damning than that.

But Texas managed. More about that next time.

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