Protecting Texas’ Children is a Mission Impossible – by Kelly White

Written by LIFT Alliance

The headline on Saturday’s Metro and State section read, “Family services chief resigns.” Reading further we learn just a few of the lurid details associated with recent child abuse deaths in Texas. Texas children have died, and as a fervent frontier state, we will exact revenge. Howard Baldwin, the man at the helm of the agency charged with protecting children, will be among those who fall.

I don’t know Baldwin, but he has a good reputation. He is supposed to be smart, thoughtful and trying to do the right thing for children. While I don’t know Baldwin, I know something about the Texas system for child protection: I know that Baldwin had an “undoable” job.

It is easy to point the finger at funding. There is no doubt thatthe state agency charged with protecting children is massively underfunded. Caseworkers juggle caseloads that are more than twice the recommended level. A new caseworker who survives the first six months is considered seasoned.

In 2010, there were more than 264,000 child abuse and neglect reports and more than 231,000 reports assigned for investigation. Almost 66,000 Texas children were confirmed as abuse victims and 231 children died from abuse and neglect in 2011. As the CEO at the Austin Children’s Shelter, I know these statistics as more than just numbers. I know that no child ever ends up at the Austin Children’s Shelter without having endured unimaginable pain and loss. And I see only a fraction of the “cases” that each child protective caseworker deals with on a daily basis. And I know that they care deeply about the children they are striving to help.

Unfortunately, I have also seen a rigid, punitive system that rarely allows for the best judgment of a caseworker regarding a child or family’s disposition. Caseworkers are forced to make families fit into narrow bureaucratic processes that are often not the best thing for families and children. That day as I read about Baldwin’s resignation, I talked with a prospective adoptive parent who told me of the abuse her future daughter endured in the foster care system. The young girl had been placed with an aunt whose fitness as a guardian had not been assessed. In fact, when a child is removed from their home, caseworkers are instructed to always first try to place the child with a family member – a policy that disregards everything we know about the cycle of violence in families.

What if we had more money to ensure that every child and family is fully assessed to ensure the best placement? What if we had more money to provide for protective child care and parental coaching – a much less costly and more effective means of family intervention? What if we had more respite care for families in distress, domestic violence shelter beds for moms trying to protect their children, and affordable substance abuse and mental health services for adolescents? What if, instead of a punitive and retaliatory system, we provided opportunities, resources and options to help families be successful?

Texas ranks among the bottom in funding for child protective services, and more than 50 percent of its funding is passed through from the federal government. This reliance on federal funds means that the federal government has a significant say in how the state CPS budget is spent. Only 1 percent of the family protective services budget is spent on child abuse prevention and only 6 cents per dollar is spent on keeping children safe at home. Even when removing children from their homes and putting them in alternative placements, caseworkers are given little discretion in determining the best placement options. It’s no wonder that retention of good employees is so low. These workers deal daily with life and death decisions, with too few resources and with almost no control over outcomes.

Yes – someone should pay for the deaths of these children. In fact, many “someones” should pay. I spent years angry with the family protective services bureaucracy because of their seeming unwillingness to put the needs of children first. Eventually I learned that their hands are tied by funding and mandates. Then my anger was directed at the state legislature. I now realize that effective change will only happen if and when we all come together across public and private, local, state and federal, and thought leaders and grassroots activists to create a system that always puts the health and welfare of individual children first.