At the age of 4, Leiliana Rose Wright died from horrific child abuse in Grand Prairie.
As shocking as the circumstances of her death are, given what we knew and when we knew it, our failure as a community to protect her is more shocking.
For years, Child Protective Services investigators have struggled, sometimes doing a little better or a little worse, but always struggling. We have long known why — low salaries and high workloads leading to constant caseworker turnover.
For example, it’s been reported that the CPS investigator assigned to Leiliana’s case had 70 other cases. Under national standards, he should have had no more than a dozen. Critical tasks went undone and critical actions untaken. With so many cases, tragic outcomes were inevitable.
When Texas does bring children into state care, the kids face new problems. Just this past December, a federal court found the states foster care system to be unconstitutionally unsafe because of high caseloads and a lack of foster homes.
Recently we learned that children were sleeping in state office buildings or living in psychiatric hospitals because no placement was available.
Attracting more foster parents requires recruiting, training and supporting them as part of a professional treatment team. Right now, though, the state pays only 85 percent of the cost of providing services. In Fort Worth, the state has a model program called Foster Care Redesign that is producing great outcomes, but with extra money from the community. So far the state won’t commit to funding it statewide.
Very few, if any, of our state leaders have called for an increase in spending on child protection or foster care. In fact, shortly after the federal court decision, I predicted that our lawmakers’ instinct will be to look for cheap solutions, such as replacing leadership or reworking our practice model.
The prediction recently came true. With Gov. Greg Abbott applauding, the head of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced the appointment of retired Texas Ranger Chief Henry “Hank” Whitman as the new top dog for CPS, saying, “I can’t think of anyone better than a Texas Ranger to protect our most vulnerable Texans,” and going on to tout Whitman’s strength as an investigator.
I have great respect for the Texas Rangers and wish Whitman the best of luck. If he is able to leverage his credibility to secure the resources CPS needs, his appointment will be a godsend.
As Leiliana’s case illustrates, though, being a great criminal investigator will be of little help to Whitman. The problem in Leiliana’s case wasn’t that CPS couldn’t figure things out. The problem was that CPS was too overwhelmed to act.
The announcement of Whitman also hints at a new law enforcement model and promises “high accountability.” Although this sounds reassuring, it would actually be counterproductive.
Child protection is primarily social work. Most cases involve neglect — primarily due to poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness — not abuse. Because of this, providing real help to the family is the best course for the kids, and that means spending money.
Holding people accountable for not doing more than is humanly possible is an unfair and a punitive approach that leads only to increased burnout and higher turnover. We see that happening right now. Top leadership positions are vacant and morale is low.
Public servants feel unfairly blamed for the problems of their underfunded agency and are worried their heads will roll next. Whoever is in the job will face the same intractable problems. Accountability simply doesn’t work unless coupled with the resources to do the work.
Nevertheless, every three years or so, the state announces a new commissioner who is going to fix everything. We know better. We have been to this rodeo before. There are solutions, but they will cost hundreds of millions of additional dollars.
Knowing what we know, unless we as a community are willing to demand real action, we can’t escape complicity in the death of the next Leiliana.
F. Scott McCown is a clinical professor of law and director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Corpus Christi Caller Times, McAllen Monitor, Waco Tribune Herald and the San Antonio Express News.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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