Buried in a backlog

Children's court inundated with cases

Stacks of thick, pink-jacketed folders lie on judge Peter Sakai's bench in one of Bexar County's two children's courts. Each contains the details of a child, or children, who have been abandoned, abused, neglected, or worse, by either one or both parents, or another relative entrusted with their care.

The list of lost ones is long, as reported frequently in the news, but the list of children who are in the state's child protective services system is much, much longer. Judge Sakai and a handful of assistant district attorneys and social workers work feverishly to clear the daily docket, only to face more cases the next day.

The bailiff grabs a box of tissues from its perch on the bench and hands it to a young woman who suddenly gets the sniffles when she learns that her recent behavior isn't persuading the judge to return her child to her custody.

"Stop drinking, stop smoking pot, get your GED," Sakai tells the 19-year-old mother, a ninth-grade dropout. The father, only 20, quit school in 10th grade. Sakai also advises him to keep his job, buy diapers instead of beer, and stay off the pot if he wants to retrieve custody of his child.

The two children in this case were lucky. They had maternal and paternal grandparents who agreed to take each of the young mother's children.

Another case follows, with more tissue for tears. Each one is reviewed and checked for progress (or lack thereof) in the cramped little courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse. Sakai looks forward to moving into a larger, renovated facility on the third floor after the first of the year.

"The move will be exciting, but stressful," Sakai says one late afternoon, after hearing 32 cases that day. Ideally, he says, his court would consider 10 to 15 cases, but even with the current workload, there is a huge backlog. "I'm busting my butt to get through this; we could have been here 'til 7 p.m., easily. If this community were totally dedicated to eliminating child abuse and neglect, we could easily double or triple the system. These issues are very complex. If we don't take responsibility, we will lose the kid."

Cases that go before the two children's courts in Bexar County typically are six to 10 months old. A "rapid response team" sent down from Austin recently helped to clear some cases off the desks of Child Protective Services social workers, but these will not go to court until at least March.

Governor Rick Perry issued an executive order to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to "oversee the systemic reform" of the Child Protective Services program, but the action has come too late to save almost a dozen children who were starved, beaten, or otherwise neglected to the point of death in Bexar County within the past year.

Child Protective Service's mission is to stabilize families and reduce the chance of future abuse, neglect, or death of a child. HHSC reports that 1,900 out of 2,400 cases in the CPS backlog have been reviewed, with 1,700 of them closed.

According to a recent report to the Bexar County Commissioners Court, the average caseload for a CPS investigator has jumped from 47.9 in November 2001 to 61.4 in August 2004, with nearly four out of 10 new caseworkers quitting within the first year. That means the turnover rate for new investigative staff exceeds 51 percent. Average burnout time is six months.

The first phase of the review shows a need to reduce the number of caseloads, maintain experienced staff, ensure that policies and procedures are followed, develop partnerships in the community, and ensure child-centered outcomes. That could be translated to mean: Hire enough people with the experience to recognize when a child is abused or neglected, take action to see that they are put in a safe environment, either with reliable family members or foster homes, and see that the child survives.

The state commission reports that "immediate corrective actions" include accelerating the hiring of 123 new positions at Child Protective Services, especially investigation caseworkers, supervisors, and child safety specialists. Incentive payments of $3,000 will be offered to tenured CPS employees who opt to stay or move back to investigations, after they stay in service for a year.

Another change includes directing CPS caseworkers to refer uncooperative families to the district attorney's office. Referring cases to prosecution was a practice in some counties, says Texas Health and Human Services spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman. "Office workers had the option before, and we made it mandatory to refer the cases to the district attorney." Goodman adds that the Texas Legislature had previously approved the hiring of 123 new child advocates, with a portion to be added to the payroll each budget quarter. "We got permission to accelerate all of the remaining hiring."

In the meantime, the lines are long and the thick, pink folders continue to pile up on the bench in Bexar County children's courts. The prospect that hundreds of children will be abandoned, abused, and neglected remains so imminent, that to get a court date for everyone would triple the size of the legal process.

And that would take the commitment of the entire community.

By Michael Cary

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