If current trends continue, Dallas County will see a 35% drop in the number of children in care in a single year.
This is not the good news it seems, as it has not been accompanied by a parallel increase in interventions aimed at strengthening families and reducing safety risks for children.
Starting Sept. 1, Texas law will have a new definition of neglect, which requires “flagrant disregard” on the part of the parent or caregiver resulting in harm or “immediate danger to the physical health or safety of the child.” ‘child “. The change raises the evidentiary threshold, replacing previous law defining neglect as leaving a child at “substantial risk” of physical or mental harm. The legislative change also eliminates non-emergency child removal applications.
Even before that, there was a disturbing trend. The number of children in protective custody in Dallas County over the previous three years had dropped 45 percent. This year’s changes are expected to result in an overall drop of 64% in the number of Dallas children placed in foster care in 2022 compared to 2018. Fewer than 30 Dallas County children were placed in protective care in May, compared to 200 children in May 2018. .
Children should only be involuntarily separated from their parents as a last resort, so fewer Dallas County children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect should be cause for celebration, especially among critics of the child protection system. Instead, it raises serious concerns because the alarming decline in referrals is not correlated with a decline in reports of suspected abuse or neglect, or in the number of confirmed child victims.
Nor is there a correlation with an increase in the number of families benefiting from complementary services. Families in difficulty are not offered other interventions that can strengthen the family and reduce threats to the safety of the child.
Family Based Safety Services (FBSS) from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services can help families address risk factors so children can stay safely in their homes and avoid the trauma of withdrawal. Services may include counseling, addiction treatment, domestic violence intervention or parenting skills. Only 325 FBSS files were open at the end of May 2022, compared to more than 800 at the end of May 2018.
Similarly, Texas does not yet offer the range of prevention and early intervention services envisioned by the federal Family First Protective Services Act, legislation that focuses resources on preserving families whose children are at risk of deportation.
Essentially, by focusing first on reducing the number of children in the child welfare system, Texas reversed a safer process that would have first built in-home resources to support families and protect the children.
As a community, we should be asking tough questions. What studies were done on the likely impact on the safety of Texas children before the new legal standard was passed? How has the “immediate danger” standard changed the recommendations that investigators might make? Are children left in a worse situation because alleged neglect did not lead to state intervention? Do the results of security assessments, historically used to determine whether the state should intervene, still guide decisions? Are these tools applied uniformly? Why is the drop in abducted children in Dallas County higher than the statewide drop? Why are fewer Dallas County families served by FBSS?
We should also consider whether these changes were implemented to meet workload goals. In the class action lawsuit pending before Judge Janis Graham Jack, the state has agreed to limit the workload of workers under guardianship. Would increasing the number of social worker positions have been a better and safer approach to staying compliant?
Late last month, a 5-year-old South Dallas boy died in his home, followed by the arrest of his mother, who allegedly told police she beat her son daily. In the months leading up to the tragic death, were any reports of alleged neglect received? If so, were these concerns disregarded due to a determination that the new “immediate danger” standard had not been met? Before raising the bar of proof to an elusive height, careful consideration should have been given to whether vulnerable children would be harmed.
Kathleen M. LaValle is President and CEO of Dallas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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