Advocates, Legislators Call for Changes in Handling of Foster Child Abuse Cases
By Hojun Choi
As Texas leaders grapple with how to fix the state’s troubled foster care system, one issue on the agenda is how to end the discrepancies between how the state handles abuse cases for foster children and for those outside the foster care system.
Child Protective Services, which handles abuse cases of children outside of foster care, must interview the child within 24 hours in cases where there is “immediate threat of serious harm or death,” or 72 hours in cases of neglect or emotional abuse. Child Care Licensing, which investigates allegations of abuse of foster children, has five days to conduct the first nterview.
Advocacy groups say many children in foster care do not get the help they need in abuse cases because of that delay and other differences in how each agency handles investigations. CPS, for example, has a more comprehensive definition of what constitutes abuse.
“If we don’t do a good job of investigating abuse and neglect the first time a child tells someone that something is going on, then the likelihood they will tell anyone again is really low, especially if they’re in foster care,” said Sarah Crockett, public policy coordinator for Texas CASA. The nonprofit provides court-appointed special advocates to represent the interests of foster children in abuse and neglect cases.
On Dec. 7, State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, introduced a comprehensive bill to reform a foster care system that a federal judge last year declared was unconstitutional because it exposes children to “an unreasonable risk of harm.”
Senate Bill 11 would, among other changes, move responsibility for abuse investigations from the Department of Family and Protective Services to CPS.
“We’ve asked the governor to make it an emergency item, which would allow it to be acted on within the first 60 days of session. If that should happen, it will certainly be the first bill we consider,” said Thomas Holloway, Schwertner’s chief of staff.
Crockett said she was encouraged by the bill.
“We were really excited that these leaders decided to take such a strong position on this issue,” she said. “The Senate is really putting all of their eggs into this basket for child welfare.”
State leaders are under the gun to reform the foster care system, after a federal judge ruled last December that the system subjects children to an “unreasonable risk of harm.” U.S. District Judge Janis Jack called for a complete overhaul of the system. Her ruling covered a wide range of issues, including how the state handles abuse investigations.
Until Jack’s ruling, Crockett said Texas CASA was not aware of the different standards. “Most of the senators and representatives that we met with weren’t aware of this issue,” she said.
CPS and Child Care Licensing differ on issues beyond the first interview deadline. CPS caseworkers must interview the child in private, and at specialized facilities such as children’s advocacy centers, whenever possible, according to a comparison provided by Texas CASA. The agency can’t delegate investigations to agencies that place children in foster care, and must assess the risk of harm to a child, not just actual harm. Child Care Licensing does not have those requirements.
In an email, Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for DFPS, said that the difference in the rules is because CPS and Child Care Licensing “are totally separate programs….Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services are different as well, because they are totally different programs.”
Tymothy Belseth, 26, was placed in foster care at 15, after his mother’s struggles with substance abuse and mental instability. He was moved to several different foster families, and said he felt ignored by the foster care system.
In one home, he said he was emotionally abused. The family made him eat at a separate table and gave him lower-quality food. He said he was barred from participating in extracurricular activities, and rarely was allowed to socialize with friends outside of school.
“The conditions that I was living in were really intolerable, and I had no recourse for getting my issues addressed,” Belseth said.
He said his caseworker did not return his calls. He finally confronted a case manager at the child placement agency. Belseth said an agency representative tried to coerce him into retracting his accusations, saying his claims were baseless.
His foster parents and an employee at the placement agency “said I should feel lucky and feel thankful for all they were doing for me,” Belseth said.
Belseth ran away and eventually was placed with a family in his hometown, Kingsville, where he finished high school.
“People think these types of things don’t happen anymore, but let me tell you from experience, they do,” Belseth said.