Dimple Patel remembers her hand shaking the first time she knocked on the door. She was 22 and had just started as a Texas Child Protective Services caseworker. “I didn't know what would be on the other side,” she said.
She would knock on hundreds more doors with the same fear each time throughout her nine years with CPS as an investigator and eventually a supervisor. While she lasted almost a decade on the job, many don't stay quite as long. Patel said that the high turnover rate made retaining experienced investigators difficult (according to a 2014 Texas Department of Family and Protective Services report, the turnover rate for workers in Houston is 36 percent; statewide, one out of every six caseworkers quit within the first six months), and that the stress of the job would continue to drive employees away.
In the wake of the death of six Houston-area children whose case CPS had previously investigated, questions have begun to circulate about what more child-protection workers could have done. Patel — who is now a senior policy analyst with TexProtects, an organization advocating for better child-protection services and funding, primarily for CPS — did not speculate on the case specifically; but to her, the problems in the system begin with overload — and with overwhelmed caseworkers.
On August 8, the six children were murdered along with their parents, Valerie and Dwayne Jackson, after Valerie's ex-boyfriend, David Conley, allegedly broke into the house and shot them. One of the children was Conley's own son. CPS's first involvement with the family was in 2011, the Houston Chronicle reported, and in 2013, the children were removed from the home after one child, Caleb, was found wandering outside by himself at night — for the second time in a few months.
But it wasn't permanent. Despite Conley's several charges of assault against Valerie — sometimes threatening her with a knife, according to records — in October 2013, Judge Glenn Devlin ordered the children be returned home, albeit with counseling and drug testing. And in the spring, he denied CPS's request to continue seeking legal intervention and foster care, the Chron reports. By May 2014, the case was closed.
In a four-page written statement sent to multiple news organizations Wednesday, Devlin said he denied the request to remove the children because there was “insufficient evidence.”
“There was never mentioned any threats or present physical abuse on any party,” he said.
Patel said that when caseworkers are overloaded, this is often the task that becomes most difficult: securing all the necessary evidence in the case. “When your workloads are lower and manageable, you're able to expend more resources on doing quality investigations. You've got more time to really get into it,” she said. “But when your wheels are spinning to the point that you're getting three to five new cases a week, you don't have the ability to do that. You're putting out fire after fire after fire.”
Houston is one of the most overloaded areas in the state. While the Child Welfare League of America recommends a daily investigative caseload of 12 per day, Houston caseworkers are doing about 21, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The city also has one of the highest rates of unsubstantiated investigations in the state (meaning there's not enough evidence for abuse, as in the Jackson case), at 80.9 percent. Last year, the Houston area saw 27 abuse- or neglect-related child fatalities, second only to Arlington's 37.
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In January, the Austin American-Statesman conducted a massive investigation into these cases of abuse or neglect-related fatalities across the state. Between 2010 and 2014, there had been 779 such deaths. The Statesman found that nearly half of the children, 380, had already been on CPS's radar, and of those, 144 families had been the subject of at least three investigations.
In a case this year, a CPS caseworker was fired after the death of two-year-old Adrian Langlais, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, whose mother's boyfriend is facing a capital murder charge. A report from DFPS outlined that the caseworker failed to properly report previous photos of suspected physical abuse of the child along with the mother and her boyfriend's marijuana and alcohol use. Similarly, three others were fired last October after two-year-old Colton Turner was found dead in a shallow Austin grave after his mother and her boyfriend allegedly buried him, a case the Statesman highlighted in its investigation. DFPS explained that the investigator and his supervisors were fired after the caseworker failed to report photos of the boy with bruises and for not properly investigating the boy's living conditions.
Patel said that initial training for these caseworkers is being overhauled, something her organization is helping to oversee. She said that previously, training was primarily classroom-based over five weeks, and that now, new hires will be assigned mentors and their training will take place in the field instead. She's hoping this will leave them better prepared for their own investigations down the line.
“Anytime I see one of these cases,” she said, referring to the Jackson children's murders, “I always think this could have happened to me. That's what I think of every time I see one of these fatalities where there was prior CPS involvement. There are days when you do everything right, and a child's life is lost. And there's nothing more tragic than losing a child and then thinking you could have done something differently.”