(source: Dallas Morning News)
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.
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.
AT A GLANCE:
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