Wrong Call?

A CPS worker says the agency erred by ignoring an earlier report on Andrea Yates

On June 18, 1999, a suicidal housewife was admitted into Methodist Hospital's Psychiatric Unit for overdosing on her father's prescription medication. As the woman was stabilized and kept under observation for the next five days, hospital workers came to learn more about her situation.

Her residence was a converted Greyhound bus with 360 square feet of livable space for her, her husband and four kids ranging in age from five years to three months. The father would demand that the children remain quiet for abnormally long periods. He was teaching the children woodworking, even going so far as to allow the three-year-old boy to operate a power drill. Concerned hospital staffers confronted the father, who became defensive. On June 23, Methodist personnel phoned the central switchboard of Children's Protective Services, in a call deemed serious enough to forward to supervisor Dan Willbur.

After a phone conversation with a hospital worker, Willbur made a recommendation to his program director, Diana Sutton: Close the case without agency investigation, because it did not involve abuse, neglect or risk to the children. Sutton agreed.

CPS would not hear about the woman again until two years later, almost to the day. That's when Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub.

Last Saturday a jury in state District Judge Belinda Hill's court found Yates competent to be tried on a capital murder charge. Psychologists said that Yates, who had been in and out of hospitals for severe depression, believed she was Satan and had thought for months about killing her children. Prior to the competency trial, a veteran CPS employee came forward to condemn agency supervisors for bad judgment in declining to investigate Yates in 1999, long before the killings.

The CPS worker told the Houston Press that there were many reasons why the case should have been pursued, particularly considering the allegations involved. "Those are serious. That's a serious situation," he says. Especially troubling for the agency employee, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, is the fact that this was a report issued by a hospital, which CPS tends to take very seriously because of its experience in situations of potential child abuse.

"If they call and say someone is suicidal, then you have to follow it through," the worker says. "They have to be evaluated." By his estimation, about 75 percent of reports from hospitals result in at least a telephone inquiry. "They really didn't do anything but close it down."

CPS spokeswoman Judy Hay disputes the CPS worker's claim. Under Texas law, she says, a very high bar has to be met before an agent of the state has the right to come into a family's home and ask very invasive questions about the parents to their neighbors, minister or day-care workers. "Before the Children's Protective Services can turn a phone call into an investigation, which would also mean a police investigation and be pretty intrusive, you have to have allegations of physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect, extreme neglect," Hay says. She spoke in general terms to avoid breaching the judge's gag order.

Before a case is closed, the person reporting potential abuse would usually be asked some very specific questions about whether the child was in danger or in adequate care. At the time of the call about Yates, Hay says, the agency was told the children were in the care of their grandparents and were receiving therapy. "If someone doesn't go, and then the doctor feels not coming to therapy puts the children at risk, then certainly they could make another call to us," Hay says.

The CPS worker who discussed the case with the Press feels that at a minimum the grandparents should have been contacted and asked to get in touch with CPS if the circumstances changed, since the children would be expected to end up back in the parents' care. But Hay says the same legal standard regarding child abuse would have to be met for CPS to even make a phone call, and that it is incumbent on the hospital staff and anyone else to update CPS if the situation changes. The community does not have the same restrictions and is expected to call CPS with even minor concerns, so CPS relies on outside calls to stay informed, she says.

The source within CPS, when asked why he believed this case was handled differently, can only shrug. "They just made a bad call," he says. With the load of reports supervisors receive, mistakes occasionally will be made. But there have been instances where other employees have been reassigned or put on probation for improperly closing cases even when no harm resulted from those decisions, the source says. Here, five children died. CPS personnel had not investigated the earlier call about Yates, but the agency still found they acted properly, the CPS source believes, because of the murder case's high profile.

"The mere fact that you're mentally ill, the mere fact that you've tried to commit suicide, does not automatically make you a danger to your children," Hay says. Nor does the small living space (the agency has seen some families living in tents). Or even the use of power drills. "There's no law against power tools. It would be a difference between whether the child was supervised or unsupervised, what kind of power tool it was -- I mean, a saw is going to be a little different."

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