Day: December 16, 2013

A few things you should know about CPS litigation

Because knowledge is power –

This article is from the Texas District and County Attorneys Association at

By Pamela Kemp Parker
Special Projects Attorney with the Office of General Counsel, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Austin

If you are new to CPS cases, the learning curve is steep.
What follows is a roadmap for this important but often disorienting legal terrain.

A growing awareness of the unique legal, social, and psychological issues confronting abused and neglected children and their families in recent decades has produced an army of judges, lawyers, child advocates, and social workers better equipped than ever to handle the unique landscape of child protective services (CPS) litigation. For attorneys new to this area of practice, however, the field’s increasing complexity makes getting up to speed a daunting task.

Any attorney who has been in the trenches knows why the learning curve is so steep: a maze of constantly changing federal and state laws, an alphabet soup of acronyms, a variable cast of parties in every lawsuit, and myriad special laws governing everything from paternity, to Native American children, to interstate and international placements. It isn’t possible to produce an exhaustive compilation of what an attorney representing the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) needs to know in a brief article, but what follows is intended as a roadmap for this important but often disorienting legal terrain, with citations and resources for further research. Although this is only a fraction of what a successful practitioner needs to know, I hope that a close look at the infrastructure underlying this field of practice will make it easier to build the necessary expertise.

The big picture

In 1997 Congress enacted a fundamental truism of child welfare litigation into law: Child safety is paramount in every decision at every juncture.1 Although it almost seems unnecessary to say out loud, the reality of child welfare litigation—the frenetic pace, heavy caseloads, high stakes and limited resources—makes the mantra of child safety a useful touchstone for practitioners.

Another pillar of child welfare policy is the concept that every child needs the most permanent living arrangement possible, as quickly as possible. Ideally, permanency means services that prevent a child from being removed from her home or allow a child to be returned home as quickly as possible. When a child cannot be returned home, however, her need for permanency requires timely decisions to afford her a safe and stable placement. After too many years of children languishing in foster care, both the Texas Legislature and U.S. Congress enacted statutory mandates that compel timely progress and review of cases and, most importantly, impose strict time limits for reaching a final determination in a child welfare case.2

Another significant concept, reflected in both policy and law, is a renewed emphasis on the role of the extended family and friends in resolving abuse and neglect issues.3 This philosophy takes many forms, but the Family Group Conferencing model is a prime example.4 In this model the first effort to aid a family in crisis is to provide a forum for the family to craft its own solution. A facilitator convenes relatives, friends and other members of the community important to the family, but the focus is on encouraging the family to draw on its own strengths and create a uniquely appropriate plan to address child safety.

With the increased focus on families, greater emphasis is also placed on an aggressive search to find any and all possible relatives or family friends who are potential caretakers when it’s determined that a child can no longer be safe in her home. To this end, DFPS provides a parent with a Child Placement Resources Form at the time of removal and must evaluate each person on the form and complete a home study of the most appropriate substitute caregiver before the adversary hearing.5

A hearing for every occasion

The rhythm and progress of a child protection lawsuit is dictated by federal and state laws that require a series of hearings that begin when a child is removed from a family’s home. The following are broad descriptions of the purpose and timing of these standard hearings. For details about the statutory requirements, issues and procedural prerequisites, consult the resources cited below. In addition, the Office of General Counsel for DFPS anticipates releasing the Practice Guide for DFPS Attorneys in the fall of 2008. Attorneys who represent the agency also currently have access to HOTDOCS, a software program with standard pleadings for DFPS litigation.6

Emergency removal. If a child has been removed with no prior court order, the agency must appear in court no later than the next business day (usually this is an ex parte hearing/order) and provide sufficient evidence of “a continuing danger to the physical health or safety of the child if returned to the home or evidence that the child has been sexually abused and is at substantial risk of future sexual abuse.”7

Alternatively, DFPS may seek an ex parte order prior to a removal and in that instance must provide sufficient evidence of “either an immediate danger to the physical health or safety of the child, or that the child has been a victim of neglect or sexual abuse.”8

In addition, in either of these circumstances the agency must also provide sufficient evidence:

•    that there is not sufficient time, consistent with the child’s physical health or safety, to hold an adversary hearing;

•    that it would be contrary to the child’s welfare to remain in the home; and

•    that reasonable efforts were made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal.9

Non-emergency hearing. If there is no urgent need for removal but the child’s safety is at risk if left in the parent’s care, DFPS can seek a court order authorizing removal following a noticed hearing. This type of order requires sufficient evidence to prove:

•    that it would be contrary to the child’s welfare to remain in the home; and

•    that reasonable efforts were made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal.10

In every removal, the original petition in the Suit Affecting the Parent Child Relationship (SAPCR) is verified by the caseworker’s supporting affidavit, which must detail specific facts about household conditions, medical findings, allegations of sexual abuse or physical abuse, or other circumstances that make removal of a child necessary, as well as the efforts made to obviate the need for a removal.

Adversary hearing. Within 14 days after DFPS takes a child into custody in an ex parte proceeding, the court must revisit the issue of removal and either enter temporary orders or return the child to the family.11 At this hearing, if the court appoints DFPS as the child’s temporary managing conservator, the court must enter temporary orders and find:

•    danger to the child’s physical health or safety and that it is contrary to the child’s welfare to remain in the home;

•    the urgent need for protection required immediate removal; and

•    that despite reasonable efforts to prevent or eliminate the need for removal and to return the child home, there is a substantial risk of continuing danger to the child in the home.12

At this juncture the agency attorney also typically seeks any necessary orders for visitation, child support, paternity testing, psychological testing, drug assessment or testing, physical examinations, discovery, or other orders needed to protect the child, facilitate the child’s return, or find optimum placement for a child.

Status hearing. No later than 60 days after a temporary order is entered, a status hearing must be held.13 Its focus is:

•    the contents of the service plan;

•    designation of the person authorized to give medical consent for the child;

•    the status of diligent search efforts for any missing parents; and

•    a warning to parents that unless the parent can offer the child a safe environment, termination of parental rights is an option.14

Permanency hearings. The first permanency hearing must be held no later than 180 days after DFPS is named as temporary conservator.15 Notice is required and all parties must be given a copy of the permanency plan at least 10 days prior to the hearing.16

At the hearing, the court must:

•    thoroughly assess all facets of the case;

•    return the child to the home if it is safe to do so;

•    enter necessary orders to ensure progress toward permanency; and

•    set a dismissal date.17

A subsequent permanency hearing must be held within 120 days of the last permanency hearing.18

Final hearing. The driving force that dictates timely resolution of a child welfare case is the requirement that no later than one year after DFPS is named conservator (or at most an additional 180 days later if the court finds that extraordinary circumstances necessitate an extension), the court must either enter a final order or dismiss the lawsuit.19 DFPS may seek termination of parental rights and appointment of DFPS or another caretaker as permanent managing conservator. Although it is sometimes necessary, naming DFPS or another caretaker as a child’s managing conservator without termination of the child’s parental rights is only appropriate if no other, more permanent option is available. Without question, this stage of the litigation requires the most careful preparation, adherence to procedural requirements, and close coordination between DFPS staff and attorneys representing the agency.

Evidence of DFPS’ efforts to locate a missing parent, a parent’s compliance with the service plan, and the child’s adoptability may all be crucial at this juncture. If termination of parental rights is requested, there must be clear and convincing evidence of at least one statutory ground for termination of parental rights and that termination is in the child’s best interests.20

Placement reviews

If the final order names DFPS as managing conservator, the court must review the child’s placement at least every six months until the child ages out of foster care.21

DFPS must submit a placement review report addressing all aspects of the child’s status at least 10 days in advance, and the court must make findings as to the appropriateness of the placement, the efforts made to meet the child’s needs, and any additional services the child needs.22

Who qualifies as a parent?

In child protection litigation, sometimes half the battle is figuring out who is a party to the action. If a child is born to a married woman, her husband is the presumed father and must be named in a suit seeking to restrict or terminate parental rights.23 Similarly, if a man has lived continuously with a child during her first two years of life and has held himself out to be the child’s father, he may also qualify as a presumed father.24

A presumption of paternity can be rebutted only by an adjudication of paternity or a valid denial of paternity filed by a presumed father with a valid acknowledgement by another person.25

If the mother is not married when a child is born (and wasn’t married within 301 days before birth) and no man has been adjudicated to be the father, the legal ramifications of alleged father status become important. Texas maintains a paternity registry, which allows an alleged father to protect his rights by registering; if he fails to do so, he allows a child to be legally freed for adoption without service of process.26

The process of checking the registry and terminating parental rights of a man who fails to register is not difficult, but getting accurate information as to potential fathers, obtaining paternity testing where possible, and handling new information that may not surface until the eve of a final hearing can be tricky. The best strategy is to make every effort to resolve the paternity question as early in the litigation as possible to streamline the litigation and make the best use of limited resources.27

Search and serve

When parental rights are at stake, due process requires that a parent be served with the lawsuit or, at a minimum, the agency must exercise due diligence in an effort to locate a missing parent before a court can authorize substitute service, usually by publication. Generally, DFPS pleads for termination of parental rights in the alternative in the initial petition. This strategy avoids the necessity of serving parties again when and if the decision is made to pursue termination of parental rights. If a default judgment is taken, compliance with the Service-members Civil Relief Act requires proof that a parent is not an active member of the military.28

Acronyms and lingo

Being familiar with the language always makes navigating new terrain much easier. A few key terms include:

Adam Walsh: The federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which requires (among other things) that child welfare agencies conduct fingerprint-based FBI checks on all prospective foster and adoptive homes and, for federally funded placements, imposes either a permanent or a five-year bar on placements if a caretaker has a conviction for specified crimes.29

ASFA: The federal Adoption & Safe Families Act of 1997 which amended Title IV-E of the Social Security Act.30

Baby Moses: The tag given to cases involving infants left at a designated facility, which are not treated as abandonment, to promote safe delivery of infants who might otherwise be left in trash bins or similar perilous circumstances. Special procedures regarding confidentiality, notice, and termination of parental rights apply in these cases.31

CAC: Child Advocacy Center, a multi-disciplinary center designed to minimize the trauma on a child by limiting the number of interviews and to promote collaboration between medical, law enforcement, social work, legal, and other child welfare professionals.32

CAPTA: The federal Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act, most recently reauthorized and amended by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003.33

CASA: Court Appointed Special Advocates, volunteer guardians ad litem appointed to advocate for a child in court.34

CCEJ: Court of Continuing and Exclusive Jurisdiction. After the adversary hearing, if another court is the CCEJ as result of a custody case or another CPS suit, the court must transfer the suit to the CCEJ or, if mandatory transfer grounds exist, order the transfer of the suit from the CCEJ, or order the transfer of the case to the court having venue of the suit.35

FBSS: Family Based Safety Services. These are protective services provided to a family before a child is removed from the home. These services are designed to avoid a removal and reduce the likelihood that a child will be abused or neglected.36

IV-D: Title IV-D of the Social Security Act creates the state’s child support enforcement program. Texas receives a substantial federal subsidy for this program. The Child Support Division of the Office of Attorney General (also known as the IV-D state agency) is responsible for the establishment and enforcement of child support.

IV-E: Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, the source of federal foster care and adoption assistance funding and the accompanying restrictions and requirements.37

Family Reunification Services: These are protective services provided after removal to support a family and the child during the child’s transition from living in substitute care to living back in the home.38

Kinship Care: Caretaking by relatives or “fictive kin,” friends of the family that function like relatives.

Order to Participate in Services: A court order to compel a parent or caretaker to participate in services designed to avoid the need to remove a child.39

SWI: Statewide Intake, a centralized DFPS office located in Austin where members of the public or professionals can report child abuse via the telephone or the Internet.

Special circumstances

In some cases, laws applicable to special situations and populations require particularized knowledge to competently resolve a CPS case. If you find yourself in a case with one of these issues, you must get help before you proceed.

For example, if a case involves:

•    a child with Native American heritage: Any removal or termination of parental rights of an “Indian child” is subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act.40

•    a foreign-born child: If a foreign-born child is in DFPS custody, DFPS must give notice to the foreign consul.41

•    an undocumented child: If an undocumented child cannot reunify with her family, the child will probably be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which is an avenue for obtaining Permanent Resident status.42

•    a child to be placed outside Texas: If a child will be placed outside of Texas, the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children may require advance approval from the state where the child will be placed.43

•    a child from another state: If Texas does not have “home state” jurisdiction or there is a prior custody determination in another state, consult the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act to assess to what extent a Texas court can assert jurisdiction beyond temporary emergency jurisdiction.45

Where to get help

Fortunately, there are excellent resources, mentors, checklists and guides available to help the busy practitioner wade through the daunting blend of legal, medical, mental health, financial and educational issues that modern child welfare litigation presents. Using these tools, we can best follow the advice of an early child advocate, Sitting Bull, who urged, “Let us put our minds together and see what kind of life we can build for our children.”46

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for CPS policy, rules, resources and updates about new initiatives;

Administration for Children and Families for Children’s Bureau, with federal law and child welfare policy handbook;

Texas Lawyers Care for child welfare-related articles, practice guides, expert witness information, and legal research;

American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law for articles, news, legislative updates and links to many other resources;

National Council of Juvenile & Family Court Judges for technical assistance, training, and research;

National Association of Counsel for Children for training, publications, and advocacy; D

Editor’s note: For more information, the author can be contacted at 512/929-6635 or


1 Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, P.L.105-89, §102.
2 42 U.S.C. §675 (5)(E) (state must file termination of parental rights for child in foster care for last 15 out of 22 months, or in case of aggravated circumstances, unless exception applies); Tex. Fam. Code §263.401 (dismissal of DFPS suit after one year unless extraordinary circumstances warrant extension of no more than 180 days).
3 42 U.S.C. §671(a)(19) (mandatory preference for adult relative that meets child protection standards over non-related caretaker); Tex. Fam. Code §262.114 (DFPS must evaluate relatives or other potential caregivers identified by parents and perform home study of most appropriate caregiver); Tex. Fam. Code §264.751 (relative and other designated caregiver support program).
4 Tex. Fam. Code §264.2015 (family group conferencing as strategy to promote family preservation and permanency).
5 DFPS Designated Caregiver Form 2625.
6 Contact Chrissy Sanders, Legal Assistant, Office of General Counsel, at 512/438-5606 or chrissy, to request HOTDOCS.
7 Tex. Fam. Code §262.107; §262.104 (a)(5) and (b) (in addition to general danger to physical health or safety, removal authorized based on specific harm caused by a parent or caretaker’s use of controlled substances or by allowing a child to remain on the premises where methamphetamines are manufactured).
8 Tex. Fam. Code §262.102.
9 Tex. Fam. Code §262.102 (a)(2)-(3); §262.107(a)(2)-(3); DFPS can claim federal funding for children who qualify for Title IV-E, but only if a court finds at the time of the removal that it was contrary to child’s welfare to remain in the home and that reasonable efforts were made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal. 42 U.S.C. §671(a)(15)(B); §672(a)(2)(A)(ii).
10 Tex. Fam. Code §262.113.
11 Tex. Fam. Code §262.201(a).
12 Tex. Fam. Code §262.201(b).
13 Tex. Fam. Code §263.201.
14 Tex. Fam. Code §§263.006; 263.202; 266.007.
15 Tex. Fam. Code §263.304.
16 Tex. Fam. Code §263.301.
17 Tex. Fam. Code §263.306.
18 Tex. Fam. Code §263.305.
19 Tex. Fam. Code §263.401 (dismissal after one year; 180 day extension possible).
20 Tex. Fam. Code §161.001(2); Holley v. Adams, 544 S.W. 2d 367 (Tex. 1976) (list of best interest factors).
21 Tex. Fam. Code §263.501.
22 Tex. Fam. Code §263.502-.503.
23 Tex. Fam. Code §160.204(a) (possible permutations that warrant presumed father status include child born during marriage, or within 301 days of a terminated marriage, child born during attempted marriage, or marriage after child’s birth with voluntary assertion of paternity if father takes specific actions)
24 Tex. Fam. Code §160.204(a)(5).
25 Tex. Fam. Code §160.204(b).
26 Tex. Fam. Code §160.402 (paternity registry); §160.404 (termination without notice to alleged father unless established parent-child relationship or man has filed paternity suit).
27 A variety of mechanisms exist for establishing paternity, Tex. Fam. Code Ch. 160, Subch. C. (establishing parent-child relationship); Subch. D. (acknowledgement of paternity) and Subch. G (adjudication of parentage).
28 Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 U.S.C. App. §511 et seq.
29 P.L. 109-248; See also 42 U.S.C. §671(a)(20)(A).
30 P.L. 105-89.
31 Tex. Fam. Code Ch. 262, Subch. D; §263.1015 (no service plan required) and Tex. Fam. Code §161.001(1)(S) (termination ground for abandoned infants).
32 Tex. Fam. Code Chapter 264, Subchapter E.
33 P.L. 108-36.
34 Tex. Fam. Code Ch. 264, Subch. G.
35 Tex. Fam. Code §262.202-.203.
36 40 Tex. Admin. Code §700.702.
37 42 U.S.C. §670 et seq.
38 40 Tex. Admin. Code §700.703.
39 Tex. Fam. Code §264.203.
40 25 U.S.C. §1901 et seq.
41 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 21 U.S.T. 77, Article 37.
42 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(27)(J).
43 Tex. Fam. Code Ch. 162, Subch.B.
44 Tex. Fam. Code §§152.102(7); 152.201(a)(1) (“home state” is state where child lived with a parent or person acting as a parent for at least six months prior to the filing of the SAPCR).
45  Tex. Fam. Code Ch. 152.
46  Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Sioux, See The Indian Child Welfare Act Handbook: A Legal Guide to the Custody and Adoption of Native American Children, B.J. Jones (American Bar Association, Family Law Section, 1995), p.1.

Published in The Prosecutor, May-June 2008, Volume 38, No. 3

abuse, child death, child welfare reform, foster care abuse, cps, death
When CPS workers accept lies, children can die
Austin Bureau
Published: 14 December 2013 11:13 PM
Updated: 14 December 2013 11:41 PM

(source: Dallas Morning News)

Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson died from injuries that included a fractured skull after workers were lied to about her case








Alexandria Hill, 2, died of head injuries last July. Her foster mother has been charged with her murder.
Orien Hamilton, an 11-month-old, died in October from fatal head injuries in a suburban Austin home.
Foster mother Sherill Small, 54, faces trial on a capital murder charge in a toddler’s death
Gregory Guajardo has been charged in the death of his son



AUSTIN — When Child Protective Services workers accept lies at face value and stop pressing for the truth, children can die.

Being gullible about relationships, living situations or even abuse can be fatal, as illustrated by the recent beating deaths of at least four young Texas children — Orien Hamilton, Alexandria Hill, Giovanni Guajardo and Emma Thompson.

In each instance, adults who had something to hide or who needed to be strong-willed protectors misled CPS workers. Had the workers known the truth, they might have removed the children from harm’s way.

State protective services chief John Specia said he wants to better train his people to ferret out deception.

“We’ve got to be able to connect dots,” said Specia, a veteran San Antonio family court judge. Gov. Rick Perry selected him last year to run CPS’ parent agency, the Department of Family and Protective Services. “It’s really a matter of being able to have … that little red light go off that somebody isn’t telling you the whole story.”

While Specia has ordered some policy changes in response to two recent deaths, The Dallas Morning News found gaps and loopholes in the department’s current rules and procedures.

The newspaper found, for instance, that CPS workers aren’t necessarily required to interview neighbors when they investigate tips about birth parents’ being abusive. Nor do CPS workers or employees of the state’s foster-care contractors have to knock on neighbors’ doors when they examine people stepping up to care for the children.

Such a check is done only if the people agreeing to tend to the youngster submit neighbors as references, said department spokesman Patrick Crimmins.

And state rules don’t require prospective foster parents to supply any references at all.

Several large contractors who perform such checks ask for references in applications, and industry veterans say it’s standard practice. But, Crimmins said, there’s an anomaly in the rules: Relatives who volunteer to take in children must supply names of people who can vouch for their character, but total strangers serving as foster parents do not.

“We can find no current … or prior standard that requires references,” he said Friday. Asked if the department would move to require them, Crimmins said: “We’re looking at everything” after a rash of child deaths.

It’s another crisis for an agency that has been through several rounds of legislative overhauls over the last decade. And in trying to improve investigations, it faces familiar problems: employee turnover fueled by low pay, too-heavy caseloads, inexperienced workers and supervisors who are almost as green as their subordinates.

In late October, 11-month-old Orien Hamilton suffered fatal head injuries in a suburban Austin home. A month earlier, CPS whiffed in checking out a tip from her birth father. He’d warned that a man with violent tendencies was helping to care for her.

Although CPS had seen the man in the home in April and knew he’d been involved in a domestic-violence episode there the following month, its worker who checked out the tip bought a step-aunt’s lie that he’d moved to Colorado.

That revelation rocked the department, reviving painful memories of a 2009 Houston case. CPS left 4-year-old Emma Thompson, who’d contracted herpes, in her mother’s care. A CPS worker accepted the mother’s misleading claims.

Fifteen days later, the mother’s live-in boyfriend sexually abused and killed Emma.

“Women who are abused are really good liars. I’ve dealt with that as a judge,” said Specia, who said CPS workers need more training on domestic-violence victims’ tendency to protect abusers.

Earlier this year, lawmakers heeded Specia’s plea and gave him money to hire 800 more front-line workers, supervisors and clerical staff. But Texas CPS still faces significant morale problems.

Each year, more than one third of the lowest-seniority caseworkers quit. A recent CPS salary study said the reasons remain unchanged — stress, safety concerns, poor supervision, low pay. Investigators still juggle more than 20 cases each. As of last week, seven urban counties — none in North Texas — had more than one-third of their newly referred investigations still waiting for a boots-on-the-ground look-see after two months.

Experts consider that a bad practice. They also don’t recommend having “conservatorship workers,” who visit foster children and youngsters handed off to relatives, responsible for 32 cases apiece. But Texas tolerates that, several child welfare experts said in interviews.

The experts warned that any drive to detect more deception will crash against two stubborn facts: Most CPS workers are overworked and most are young, recent college graduates who have not reared a family and are in their first job.

Expecting them to cut through deceptions as well as someone in her 40s might is foolish, said former McKinney police Sgt. Ida Wei Cover. She spent seven years as a CPS worker and then switched to law enforcement.

“They just don’t have the life experiences,” Cover said. Given their age and caseloads, no one should be surprised when tragedies occur, she added. “Realistically, it is unmanageable to have a good finger on the pulse on all of their cases.”

Susan Etheridge, who was a CPS program administrator in Dallas County until 2004, said her old employer competes for college graduates with companies and school systems that pay more. When CPS fails to give rookies top-notch training and place them under the wing of savvy, experienced supervisors, it invites disaster, she said.

“Come on, you can’t run McDonald’s with the kind of turnover they’ve got,” said Etheridge, who now runs Court Appointed Special Advocates of Collin County, which recruits volunteers to guide and help abused children as they’re taken from birth families. “The really good [CPS workers] will say to you as they’re leaving, ‘It is unethical because I can’t meet all of these requirements. And I can’t stand it anymore.’”

Recent child deaths

Etheridge and other longtime leaders of child-welfare organizations suggested possible improvements after reviewing the clues that CPS missed and the opportunities for more rigorous investigation it didn’t seize in several child deaths:

Emma Thompson: In June 2009, doctors at a Houston hospital confirmed the 4-year-old had herpes and unusual bruises around her waist. Interviewed at the hospital, Emma denied she’d been touched inappropriately.

According to the Houston Chronicle, birth mother Abigail Young told a CPS worker that no other adults were living in her household. Young said Emma might have come into contact with someone with herpes at a local YMCA. While in rare cases herpes can be transmitted in a nonsexual way, Young also had the disease.

She also lied about her live-in boyfriend, Lucas Coe, who served as a part-time baby-sitter. He had a lengthy criminal record. CPS had investigated him three times on accusations he abused a former girlfriend’s young boy.

Had CPS known Coe was there, it probably would have removed Emma and her two sisters. Instead, she stayed with Young, a nurse. Fifteen days later, Emma died from injuries that included a fractured skull, severed pancreas, vaginal tearing and more than 80 bruises. Coe is serving a sentence of life without parole in connection with her death. Young received a prison term of 20 years for failing to protect the child.

The case triggered a policy change — CPS has to interview neighbors if a child has a sexually transmitted disease. The Legislature also passed a law tightening such investigations so that the presumption is the disease-ridden child will be removed.

Alexandria Hill: The 2-year-old died of head injuries last July at a Temple hospital. In January, Texas Mentor, a for-profit foster-care contractor, had placed her in a newly licensed foster home in Rockdale, an hour northeast of Austin. Just over a year ago, CPS removed Alex from her birth parents in Austin, citing concerns about their parenting skills and drug use.

Foster mother Sherill Small, 54, faces trial on a capital murder charge in the toddler’s death. Small told police she was swinging Alex by the legs through the air when she accidentally lost her grip, smashing the child’s head against the floor. Milam County authorities recently announced they’re seeking a sentence of life without parole.

Experts say CPS and Texas Mentor overlooked too many warning signs about Small and her husband, including her own history as an abused foster child and his past drug addiction and scrapes with the law, and baby-sitting relief she later was learned to have received from one of her adult daughters. In 2002, the daughter had been convicted of robbery and kidnapping.

Specia was apparently upset that neither CPS nor Texas Mentor properly vetted the adult daughter. He has ordered that in the future, all grown offspring of foster parents will be interviewed before any placements occur.

Orien Hamilton: The 11-month-old, born in San Antonio with methamphetamines in her body, died in October from fatal head injuries. They occurred in the suburban Austin home of a step-aunt, Heather Hamilton. Only days earlier, Lutheran Social Services, the state’s largest private child placing agency, had licensed the aunt as a foster parent.

Officials have acknowledged that CPS and Lutheran conducted such inadequate checks that they didn’t know Jacob Salas was Heather Hamilton’s live-in boyfriend and eight-year partner. Salas, 32, was well-known to police for violence. In May, he flew into a rage and put his fist through a car’s tail light, according to police and CPS reports. He’d also listed Heather Hamilton’s previous address on a 2004 driver’s license application and her current Cedar Park address on several more recent public records.

Giovanni Guajardo: The 6-month-old, born in Dallas in September 2012 with amphetamines in his system, suffered fatal head injuries in a Balch Springs home last March.

Giovanni’s parents, Shawnna Gonzalez and Gregory Guajardo, also have two daughters. The oldest, now 3, tested positive at birth for cocaine, according to CPS records. After Giovanni’s birth, “both parents admitted to illegal drug use,” said a terse child fatality report by CPS.

CPS farmed out Giovanni to one relative and the girls to another.

Dallas Juvenile Court Judge William Mazur put those relative caregivers under strict orders not to allow unsupervised visits by the birth parents, records show. But for several days in March, all three youngsters were left in the care of their birth parents and grandmother.

The grandmother “also was aware that they were not supposed to have unsupervised visits with the parents,” said CPS spokeswoman Marissa Gonzales. “She knew that it was happening.”

Gregory Guajardo, 31, who has a lengthy criminal record, has been charged with capital murder in connection with Giovanni’s death. CPS says it never got an explanation of what happened.

“The autopsy photographs on that child were horrible,” Balch Springs Deputy Police Chief Jonathan Haber recounted.

Trusting intuition

Mike Foster of Austin, who has 40 years of experience running a residential treatment center and a family services agency for abused children, said that in child safety investigations, if adults are uncooperative, CPS or private companies should escalate their aggressiveness.

They should randomly interview neighbors and demand to look into closets — say, to see if a man’s clothes are present, indicating he lives in the home.

“You should always take it to the next step,” Foster said. “You almost always regret not trusting your intuition. If you feel like something’s up, you better chase that down.”

Crimmins, the CPS spokesman, said workers may ask to look into closets. But if rebuffed, they are encouraged to confer with a supervisor, he said. The agency then can consider further action “to compel a complete inspection,” he said.

Retired child-placing agency executive Irene Clements of Austin, now president of the National Foster Parent Association, said assessments of adults who fill in for birth parents are too sketchy.

“You can learn a lot by asking for more information,” she said. Clements said long ago, the state required prospective foster parents to write autobiographies and essays on their marriages and child-rearing techniques.

“You could compare his answer to hers, and you can catch stuff,” Clements said.

Cover, the former McKinney police child-abuse investigator, said CPS should pair all rookie workers with a veteran worker in a mentorship. Ideally, it should include opportunities to work cases alongside police detectives.

Having CPS workers take certain law enforcement courses about interrogation techniques would also help, she said.

“Attempt to build an alliance with that individual, saying, ‘I’m helping you to get this placement. I’m helping you to keep your granddaughter in your home,’” she said. “Make the agency the bad guy. … Build the trust.”

Specia has said he wants to “beef up” training about domestic-violence victims for CPS’ 1,400 conservatorship workers, though he has offered no details.

Crimmins said the training has yet to be enhanced. But a three-month, basic-training course gives CPS rookies two reading assignments about domestic violence and covers the subject in about three hours over three separate days of classroom instruction and in a simulation of mock cases.

A special unit in San Antonio is trying to come up with new guidelines for handling households afflicted by domestic violence.

Cover said fewer CPS recruits had college majors, such as social work and psychology, than in years past. That helped them for the drug- and violence-wracked households they’re about to enter.

“These workers absolutely need additional training in the dynamics of family violence and spouse abuse and how it impacts the children, as well as alcoholism and drug abuse,” she said.

Follow Robert T. Garrett on Twitter at @RobertTGarrett.


Vetting caregivers

Is Texas’ checklist for vetting adult caregivers of abused children adequate? Before children may be placed in a foster home or with a relative, Child Protective Services requires the following information or checks:

• Addresses for the past 10 years

• Basic information on all members of the household

• Family income

• Criminal history background check

• A check of any past investigations by CPS

CPS requires these questions about domestic violence:

• For foster parents, screeners must check for any domestic violence-related calls to law enforcement in the past 12 months.

• For relative caregivers, screeners simply must inquire about family violence.

Possible holes in vetting by CPS and its contractors:

• Workers for CPS or private child-placing agencies don’t have to demand references from prospective foster parents. However, some agencies do, and the state requires five from relatives who’ve volunteered to take in abused kids.

• Workers don’t have to randomly interview neighbors, even during initial investigations of suspected child maltreatment.

• Workers don’t have to examine closets of single adults who want to be caregivers, to see if they’ve omitted mention of an adult partner spending significant time in the home.

• For foster parents, CPS requires interviews of all members of the household and adult children living elsewhere. However, for relative caregivers, guidelines don’t specifically say all household members must be interviewed. Guidelines do call for contacting adult children.

SOURCES: Texas Department of Family and Protective Services; Texas Administrative Code; child-placing agencies’ websites; Dallas Morning News research