New child abuse laws change the way judges rule in court

Law changes make it even more crucial that people report abuse immediately, judge says

Several laws passed in September 2021 have an impact on the way CPS and child abuse cases are interpreted.

SAN ANTONIO – On the heels of two child deaths in San Antonio, allegedly from abuse, KSAT is taking a look at new laws passed last year that affect abuse and Child Protective Services cases.

Several laws passed in September 2021 have an impact on the way CPS and child abuse cases are interpreted.

“The trend is with these legislative changes are heightened thresholds, heightened requirements of proof for judges, like me, to consider removal orders or protection orders,” said Judge Monique Diaz of the 150th District Court.

Diaz hears family and CPS cases that more often than not involve abuse.

“In 30% of our CPS cases, domestic violence is the primary reason for removal of children . In 60% it’s a primary or secondary reason,” she said.

Diaz said changes in the language may seem small but have a big impact in court.

For example, House Bill 567 redefines neglect.

“Previously, the definition of neglect meant that an act was committed with blatant disregard for the consequences that resulted in harm or a substantial risk of harm to a child,” Diaz explained. “The law has now been changed to where those actions have to result in harm or immediate danger to a child. So it’s heightening the threshold of proof.”

Diaz said one of the goals of the law is to prioritize family reunification. She said it would essentially focus on the most blatant cases and cut down on the number of removals she can approve.

“Last year we had 152 non-emergency removals compared to about 790 emergency removals. Those non-emergency removals are completely off the table now,” Diaz said.

She said that’s why it’s more important than ever that when people see abuse they report it immediately because timing matters.

House Bill 3379 also has a slight terminology change that raises the limit for proof of abuse and neglect.

“Before, if you had any cause to believe that there was abuse and neglect, mandatory reporters had to report that and members of the public are required to report that. Now, it requires a reasonableness element, so it’s a heightened threshold,” Diaz said.

Another part of House Bill 3379 touches on medical exams.

When the court examines whether there is an immediate danger to the physical health or safety of a child sufficient to issue an emergency order for removal/protection, the court is prohibited from finding an immediate danger based solely on the opinion of a medical professional who did not conduct a physical examination of the child.

“What we saw during COVID is those in-person examinations were made more challenging,” Diaz said.

Diaz said she hopes more in-person exams will resume now that COVID numbers are starting to drop.

If you suspect child abuse you are required as a community member to report it. You can call 911, or if you’re more comfortable, you can also now text 911.

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About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.