As Texas Department of Family and Protective Services officials continue investigating the death of a girl who escaped a Child Protective Services office, advocates and legislators are grappling with the worst-case scenario of the state's shortage of homes for abused and neglected children.
The girl, 15, who had been staying in a Child Protective Services office in Houston, was hit and killed by a minivan on Sunday morning, according to a report from the Dallas Morning News. Another girl, 17, was injured in the incident but released from medical care. The two had been reportedly missing from the office for more than 10 hours and were walking on the side of the road. The 17-year-old had already run away from two different CPS offices within three days before the accident.
The girl’s death comes as the Legislature works to pass long-sought child welfare bills ahead of the session's May 29 end. Advocates have decried the Houston incident as an example of how badly Texas needs to recruit more foster and adoptive families, particularly ones willing to take in older children dealing with trauma and behavioral problems. They also point to the perils of leaving caseworkers to watch unplaced children after hours with little recourse if they run away.
When Department of Family and Protective Services caseworkers cannot find a foster home, an emergency shelter or residential treatment center for a child, oftentimes Texas children are forced to sleep in hotels or CPS offices until a suitable placement is found.
Department spokesman Patrick Crimmins said in an emailed statement the agency is reviewing its overnight office stay policy and trying to determine what happened with the two girls in Houston.
“If we need to make changes we will,” Crimmins said. “As far as the workers, we are talking to them to get a picture of exactly what was going on at that particular office. If we think discipline is appropriate that will happen but it is too early to know.”
Under the Department of Family and Protective Services’ policy on taking care of children sleeping in offices, at least two adults must be on duty; children have to have three meals and at least one snack per day, with no more than four hours passing during the day between feeding times; each child must have their own sleeping space, clean sheets, towels, blankets, bedspreads, pillows and toiletries; and workers have to find a place for children to bathe if there is still no place for them to go after 24 hours. They also require “sufficient recreational activities,” including television, board games or playtime outside.
“Supervising adults must remain awake, be ready to meet the needs of the child if the environment becomes unsafe, and prepared to maintain the safety of the other children,” the policy reads.
Myko Gedutis, an organizer focused on child welfare issues for the Texas State Employees Union, said Sunday's incident was a tragedy that was “bound to happen” as having kids sleeping in offices is not a good idea to begin with.
“[Caseworkers] can’t lay a hand on a kid, they can’t grab them, tackle them or lock them in a room,” Gedutis said. “They’re asking employees watching these kids to do the impossible.”
With the ongoing investigation, it’s unclear how effective the agency’s missing child policy was when the two girls ran away. When a child goes missing, caseworkers have to notify local police within 24 hours and then notify the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. From there, they request help from a special investigator from the department. Caseworkers can try to convince older children that want to leave to stay put, but they cannot do much else.
The Houston incident is an example of how it takes “the worst possible event to make change happen” in the child welfare system, said Will Francis, government relations director for the National Association of Social Workers’ Texas chapter.
Francis said that neither the department or the Legislature has properly addressed the lack of placements available for children or eased the burden on already overworked caseworkers working off the clock to watch children in offices.
“I worry this will empower some people to sort of push some of their own bills that they think are going to push [placements],” Francis said. “We need to put dollars into recruitment, and I think ultimately that recruitment needs to be as broad as possible. We need to think Texas-wide ... we need to think about how to get everyone engaged.”
Read related Tribune coverage:
- House State Affairs Committee members heard testimony Wednesday afternoon on House Bill 3859, which would allow faith-based organizations to exercise their “sincerely held religious beliefs” when participating as providers in Texas’ child welfare system.
- Texas legislators are considering sharpening religious protections for faith-based groups the state hires to place children in foster homes. Critics say that could give religious groups license to discriminate.
- After months of calls from advocates to take drastic measures, both chambers unanimously passed bills on Wednesday that would change how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services cares for vulnerable children.