I am sure by now you have heard the name Leiliana Wright. Last month, the Grand Prairie four-year old was tied up, choked and beaten to death. In the months preceding her death, attempts had been made to involve Child Protective Services (CPS) in what had become a very dangerous situation for this young child. Sadly, due in part to inaction by the state agency charged with protecting Texas children from abuse and neglect, her innocent life was cut short.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated case of a child tragically “falling through the cracks.”
CPS has long been impacted and overwhelmed by an incredible demand for their services. In part due to a lack of adequate funding, the agency has far too often failed to protect our most vulnerable young Texans. In learning about the breakdown in the system in Leiliana’s case, it is apparent that this agency is in crisis.
We all know that a CPS caseworker’s job is hard and stressful and that the pay is low. Last fiscal year, more than one-quarter of the state’s CPS workers left; 59 percent of those had worked for the agency for three years or less. In Dallas County, from September through November of last year, the turnover rate was an astonishing 57 percent. Since many leave in the first few years of service, the amount of institutional knowledge is limited, further eroding CPS’ ability to protect abused and neglected children.
CPS isn’t alone in failing our children. The foster care system, designed to protect the children taken out of harmful situations by CPS, is also in dire need of repair.
Last month, it was reported that children are sleeping in CPS offices and state mental health facilities due to a lack of foster care facilities and homes. This comes just four months after United States District Court Judge Janis Jack found the state’s foster care system to be unconstitutional. To address this dire situation, last month, Jack named two special masters to overhaul the CPS and foster care system.
In the December 17, 2015 court order, Jack stated,
“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 (permanent managing conservatorship) children, who almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered.“
Texas should embrace the opportunity to work with Judge Jack and the special masters to develop immediate reforms. Unfortunately, Attorney General Ken Paxton continues to appeal and is filing motions against supposed “federal overreach.” Now is not the time for those partisan games, and Paxton needs to stop dragging this out through the courts.
In an interview with NBC5, while discussing the enormity of this situation, I stressed that “…if there was ever an emergency in state government, the failure that we are seeing right now in CPS to protect vulnerable children from serious injury is it.”
This is a crisis. And one that we must address now.
Earlier this week, the Abbott administration announced new leadership at the Department of Family and Protective Services. I wish these new appointees the best; they have a very difficult job in front of them. I hope they can quickly identify and implement dramatic improvements. However, if they find the changes they need require legislative action, then Governor Abbott must call a special session of the Legislature. The bottom line is, this can’t wait until the 2017 legislative session. There are too many children’s lives at stake.
PS: April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. If you would like to learn how to help prevent child abuse in your community, visit the child advocacy center for Tarrant County, Alliance For Children, or Texas CASA.