Texas

Texas child abuse deaths rising despite governor's shakeup

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The number of Texas children dying of abuse and neglect has increased since Republican Gov. Greg Abbott began a shake-up of the state's beleaguered child welfare system a year ago, a newspaper reported Thursday.
    
Records obtained by The Dallas Morning News show that at least 202 children died because of maltreatment in 2016, compared with 173 the year before. At least 28 children who died of abuse or neglect had an open case with state child welfare workers, up from 19 a year earlier.
    
The worsening numbers have come despite Abbott placing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services under his thumb since taking office in 2015. He hired a new commissioner, pledged an additional $40 million for child safety and embedded aides who track the daily work of the department.
    
The new figures cap a year of chaos due primarily to an exodus of hundreds of child abuse investigators, who cited low pay and untenable caseloads. Case backlogs statewide are also nearly twice as bad as they were in the fall of 2015, the newspaper reported.
    
Abbott spokesman John Wittman said the governor is making strides and more changes are coming. But some Democrats and child advocates say Abbott might have saved lives if he and other Republican leaders had heeded their warnings earlier.
    
"Had action been taken sooner, could deaths have been prevented? I have to believe yes," said Democratic state Rep. Chris Turner, who as early as April said Abbott needed to call a special legislative session to review caseworker turnover and pay.
    
Wittman said the governor was "continuing to work with DFPS and the Legislature to ensure that the necessary changes are being made to prevent child deaths in Texas."
    
Briefing records and hundreds of emails, obtained by the newspaper under open records laws, show that at least six times, DFPS met with the governor's office to evaluate the year's negative trends in child deaths. The department also shared "hot spot" reports meant to predict problem counties, as well as reports tracking thousands of children who weren't being seen by caseworkers on time - or at all.
    
On Feb. 23, Abbott's Child Protective Services policy adviser wrote a sternly worded email after she was alerted to a child fatality, apparently appalled that the state knew about the parent's substance abuse but failed to act.
    
"I cannot tell you how frustrated this makes me," Allison Bilodeau wrote in the email, in which she also said mismanagement and case backlogs in the Dallas region were deeply troubling.
    
As problems and bad press mounted, House Democrats and child safety advocates wanted to discuss emergency funding to keep good caseworkers and drive down caseloads. In mid-October, Abbott signed onto a joint letter to the agency, demanding change but failing to call for pay raises.
    
The commissioner came back with a plan for thousands of pay raises and more money to hire caseworkers and drive down caseloads. After weeks of negotiations, Abbott and legislative leaders embraced the plan. But more spending for the agency could be a steep climb next year as lawmakers will face budget constraints.
   

 


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