The Associated Press State & Local Wire

January 21, 2005, Friday, BC cycle

Funding a key issue in Texas’ child protection crisis

This is the first in an occasional series examining issues related to CPS.

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 1138 words

DATELINE: AUSTIN, Texas

The state’s Child Protective Services system is in crisis, and some say Texans’ insistence on keeping taxes low is costing lives – innocent young lives.

“I just don’t think children are a priority in Texas. I think roads are,” said Connie Hindman, a 60-year-old grandmother of 14, who retired last month as director of a children’s advocacy center in Lubbock.

A series of high-profile deaths – from 2-year-old Michael Russell, who died of malnutrition, to 5-year-old Daisy Perales, who suffered head trauma – have called attention to severe deficiencies in the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services.

In a 2 1/2-year period through last May, 509 Texas children died from abuse or neglect, according to state records. In more than a quarter of the cases, state caseworkers had investigated the children’s families and decided they were safe to live with their parents.

And the tragic numbers keep growing.

Michael died Sept. 19, a little over a week after a CPS caseworker went to the boy’s Dallas home to meet with his mother, Candace Russell. The caseworker “noted the child had very dry skin, that the head appeared enlarged,” signs of malnutrition, said Stephanie Goodman, Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman. Caseworkers had investigated child abuse claims against Russell seven times.

Daisy died Dec. 1, shortly after she was taken off life support. The San Antonio girl was hospitalized Nov. 23 for head trauma, bruises, a previously fractured rib, a lacerated spleen and malnutrition. CPS had investigated her family seven times since 1998.

“Reading a newspaper of late has been more like reading a horror novel,” Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said last fall. “Only, the monsters are real.”

A report ordered by Gov. Rick Perry declared this month that the agency responsible for protecting Texas’ 6 million children “requires significant change in nearly all aspects of program operation.”

The Health and Human Services Commission’s inspector general, Brian Flood, reviewed 2,221 cases. In more than half of the cases where action was needed, Flood found caseworkers failed to maintain contact with the child, failed to review the case with their supervisor for appropriate direction, or failed to provide all the needed services to the child.

But Scott McCown, a former state district judge who heard 2,000 child abuse cases, argues against blaming caseworkers.

The typical Texas child abuse investigator juggles 70 or more cases a month, according to the report.

That’s one of – if not the – highest caseloads in the nation, Texas child advocacy groups claim. The starting salary for an entry-level investigator in Texas is $27,540. Roughly half quit within the first year.

The Child Welfare League of America recommends a caseload of 12 to 17, while acknowledging that a specific national standard is difficult because specific job descriptions and responsibilities vary greatly from agency to agency.

“Our Legislature gives us the government we ask for,” said McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based group that studies issues affecting low-income Texans. “We’ve told them we want the absolute cheapest government in the country and we’ve got it. And as a consequence, kids are dying.”

The Republican-controlled state – which has no state income tax – boasts one of the five lowest combined state and local tax burdens in the nation, according to the Washington-based Tax Foundation, a conservative, nonpartisan organization.

But Nelson, who also is pushing for CPS reforms, said the problem is a broken system – not an inadequate tax structure.

“Yes, we need more caseworkers. Yes, we will make that investment to hire caseworkers,” she said. “But just hiring more caseworkers is not going to fix the problem. There is a systematic breakdown that has occurred, and that’s not just due to money.”

State Rep. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, has proposed raising the state’s cigarette tax by $1 a pack to fund CPS reforms and other health and human services initiatives.

Uresti said he believes most Texans would support higher taxes if they understood the needs.

“The problem is, for the past decade or last 15 years, politicians have not wanted to raise taxes,” he said.

Texas ranked 47th in spending on child protection – at $134 per child, or $170 less than the national average – in a 2002 survey by the Urban Institute, a social policy research organization.

“You can’t spend what we spend and have a system that will protect children,” said Susan Craven, executive director of Texans Care for Children, an advocacy group with a goal of bringing up Texas’ overall ranking on indicators of child well-being to 25th or higher.

For now, Texas ranks near the bottom on most of those indicators, from poverty and teen pregnancy to child vaccinations and high school graduation rates.

Along with child protection, legislators will struggle this session with fixing a beleaguered school finance system and restoring cuts made two years ago to the state health insurance program for poor children.

“We see all this as connected,” Craven said. “You can’t educate a child that comes to school with rotting teeth and a hurting mouth. You can’t educate a child who has asthma and hasn’t been able to get medical care.

“And you can’t educate a child who has been neglected and abused; they don’t come to school ready to learn.”

The governor has proposed infusing $329 million in new money into CPS to add nearly 2,000 caseworkers and support staff, strengthen management and oversight, and buy technology to help investigators in the field. The state’s $253 million share would come from general revenue. Federal funds would cover the rest.

State lawmakers opened their biennial session this month with a $400 million surplus, but they face myriad financial concerns.

“The governor believes certainly that we need to put more resources in CPS and he has proposed it,” said Robert Black, a Perry spokesman. “But equally important, you have to rebuild the entire structure of the agency.”

In the meantime, caseworkers run on a treadmill that never stops – and lose sleep over children who might be in danger, said Tom Molnar, a state human services specialist based in Kerrville.

“It’s not a bunch of lazy workers sitting around the office drinking coffee or somebody not caring,” Molnar said. “It’s just the fact that they’re overwhelmed, incredibly overwhelmed, and it’s become an impossible job to do.”

On the Web:

CPS report: http://www.hhs.state.tx.us/CPS-Review.shtml

Center for Public Policy Priorities: http://www.cppp.org

Texans Care for Children: http://www.texanscareforchildren.org

Bobby Ross Jr. can be reached at bross(at)ap.org.

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