Out of sight, child abuse in Texas thought to be on the rise

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services offices in Austin on Nov. 14, 2019. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

On paper, the number of children being abused and neglected in Texas appears to be going down as the state reckons with a deadly viral outbreak. If only that were true.

Fewer suspected cases are being reported to the state’s abuse hotline, but child welfare advocates say that decline is artificial and belies a grim reality: Amid a global pandemic that has killed tens of thousands and shuttered schools, daycares and other social services, more Texas children are likely suffering from abuse.

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“The reality is, incidences will likely be on the rise,” said Sophie Phillips, chief executive officer of the advocacy organization TexProtects. “We know that additional strain and stress on families during this crisis puts children at an increased risk of abuse.”

Between late February and mid-March, as Texans’ daily lives contracted under closures and cancellations, hotline tips to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services fell from 11,179 a week to 9,344.

But child welfare workers recognize that pattern: They see the same drop in numbers each summer when schools are out and there are fewer teachers and day care workers watching over children and alerting officials to possible abuse.

Already a beleaguered agency emerging from a period of crisis— it has been slammed repeatedly by federal courts as minors slept in state office buildings, high-risk children went unmonitored and caseworkers were stretched too thin to protect their wards — DFPS is confronting agonizing choices as it balances its mission of protecting children against mandates to limit human contact.

Trapped in their homes with the increased stress of health risks, layoffs and food insecurity, abusers are more prone to violence, advocates say. With schools closed, children with injuries are less likely to be spotted. And with a virus that spreads from person to person, the state’s child welfare workers are forced to decide: Should they cancel face-to-face visits and risk a child’s safety, or continue them and risk their own?

In critical cases, protective services workers are still visiting homes so they can see children in person, but more and more of their work is being shifted to online interviews and remote enforcement.

“The safety of our most vulnerable children should be first and foremost — this situation just puts them more at risk,” Phillips said. Child welfare workers “are really first responders,” she said, but “we also have to practice procedures that limit the exposure to kids and our work force. Because we need our child welfare workforce now more than ever.”

Some services simply must continue in person, agency staff said. In fiscal year 2018, the agency employed 2,440 investigations-focused case workers and completed 171,228 child abuse investigations.

“There are no alternate methods for child abuse investigations – you have to see the child, and if the child is verbal, ask him or her questions,” said Patrick Crimmins, the agency’s director of communications. Case workers are still being required to report in person to supervise “monitored returns” when children are placed back into homes that were previously deemed unsafe.

Meanwhile, other tasks, like monthly check-ins with families, can be conducted online via video conference. But advocates say remote services can be less effective — caseworkers could miss a bruise or other warning sign.

“We rely a lot on face-to-face interaction to ensure safety and to ensure privacy,” said Kate Murphy, a senior policy associate at the advocacy organization Texans Care for Children. “On a virtual platform, it’s a lot harder to make sure the child is having a private conversation with the case worker, and it may be easier to hide things that are happening in the home.”

Case workers deciding whether to contact a family in person or use technology should “balance the safety of children while simultaneously taking efforts to reduce possible health risks to those children, their families and caretakers, and themselves,” according to internal guidance from the agency obtained by The Texas Tribune. When caseworkers do make in-person visits, they have been instructed to take COVID-19 precautions, like asking screening questions about travel and remaining six feet away from family members.

Asked whether case workers are allowed to opt out of in-person visits, a DFPS spokeswoman said “there may be a few individual workers who have unique circumstances and they are encouraged to consult their managers.” Some but not all government workers in Texas are working remotely. The agency, which bars case workers from speaking with reporters without approval, declined to connect a Texas Tribune reporter with a case worker.

The outbreak has also disrupted other critical family services — like in-person substance abuse meetings for parents. Advocates are also worried that the number of people willing to foster — already critically low in Texas — may decline as families worry about bringing new children into their homes. And a slow-down in Texas courts may also halt critical family law proceedings, like adoptions and reunifications that require a judge’s approval.

Kids who are separated from their parents and placed with foster families or in group homes often have regular meetings scheduled with their biological parents and siblings. But in efforts to slow the spread of the virus, many Texas courts have suspended in-person visits and ordered video or phone calls instead. In some parts of the state, parents have to specifically request a judge’s permission to see their children in person.

Limited in-person contact is “not going to be great for the kids or their families,” Murphy said. “Continuing those connections is so important.”

In other places, those visits have continued in person uninterrupted — which has become cause for a different concern. In Tarrant County, some but not all judges have ordered a switch to remote visitation, leaving some foster parents worried about the safety of gathering for in-person visits at a time when social distance is the rule.

A foster mother in Tarrant County said she asked to move the weekly in-person visits with her foster child’s biological mother from McDonald’s, where they usually meet on Tuesdays, to an agency office. Even when they did, she still found herself alarmed by the number of people who were in the room: her foster child; a foster sibling, coming from another household; the children’s biological mother and her husband; and an agency worker who she worried might have been in and out of many families’ homes that week. With so many people coming from so many different households, she wondered, what was the threat of infection?

“CPS has said to me, ‘Please understand how emotionally important the parent-child visits are,’ to which I have said, ‘I do,’” the foster mother said. “But this trumps it. This is a little bit more important — because how many people are potentially being exposed?”

Disclosure: TexProtects has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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