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Making Strides in Preventing Child Abuse, But More Steps Needed

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By Courtney Welch

Over the past few years, Texas made a tremendous effort to address the poignant issues surrounding child abuse and neglect. Thanks in great part to U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, attention was brought to the flaws in the Texas Foster Care system, and drastic changes were made to policies and the infrastructure of the state of Texas. 

Now the Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) and its branch of Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) are beginning to implement and review these changes, and they’re being rewarded with measured success. However, the need for evidence-based recommendations and research-confirmed results is still great. 

Below is a review of past mistakes, an overview of present efforts, and a projection for the future regarding Texas’ attempt to tackle one of the most daunting issues facing children today.

An Acknowledgement of Historical Need

Only three short years ago, Judge Jack accused the state of Texas of violating children’s constitutional right to be free from harm while in custody. The investigation and ruling were prompted by an alarming number of deaths due to child abuse and neglect. In 2015 there were 171 confirmed cases of child death due to maltreatment or neglect, some occurring while children were under the care of the state. Though this number was down from the all-time high of 280 deaths in 2009, Judge Jack accused the state of having a broken system. She demanded reform. 

The ruling sent a shockwave through Texas, prompting the state, and especially DFPS, to make swift changes. Since 2015, the DFPS made incredible strides — thanks to the efforts of the PEI. 

PEI houses the Office of Child Safety (OCS), oversees the Texas Home Visiting program, and works with other community programs and non-profits around the state. Its mission is “[to help] create opportunities for children, youth, and families to be strong and healthy by funding community-level, evidence-informed programs and systems of support upstream from crisis and intensive interventions.” Simply stated, its goal is to work with communities to intervene before child abuse happens. 

An Overview of Current Efforts

After Judge Jack’s 2015 ruling, the PEI set to work on a Five-Year Strategic Plan, published in 2016. The plan created the following seven overall goals. PEI will:

  1. Adopt a public-health framework to prevent child abuse and fatalities, and support positive child, family, and community outcomes. 
  2. Maximize the impact of current investments and seek additional resources to serve more children, youth, and families and strengthen communities.
  3. Make and share decisions about investments in families and communities based on an analysis of community risk and protective factors, as well as community-developed needs assessments. 
  4. Utilize research findings to improve program implementation, to direct program funding toward the most effective programs, and ultimately to achieve better results for children and families. 
  5. Measure and report on the effectiveness of its programs on an annual basis and make timely course corrections based on available data.
  6. Maximize its impact by collaborating with other state entities and external organizations working with similar populations. 
  7. Be transparent and inclusive in its planning and operations and will proactively publish its strategic plan and progress towards its goals.

Throughout Texas, PEI’s presence can be felt through programs including Community-Based Family Services; Community Youth Development; Service to At-Risk Youth, Statewide Youth Services Network; Texas Families Together and Safe; and Texas Home Visiting. Organizations such as these are specifically paired with a research and evaluation partner — usually a department in an institution of higher education — that reviews the goals of PEI in relation to these programs, summarizes the outcomes of these programs, and makes recommendations for further improvement. A review of the previous fiscal year — as well as business strategies for upcoming years — are published on the DFPS website, which also contains more information about PEI and their associated programs.

A Charge for the Future

The changes and growth in DFPS and its PEI division have played a substantial role in how the state addresses the public health issue of child abuse and neglect. Many agencies associated with PEI have worked tirelessly with the organization to set measurable goals. Many of these brainstorming efforts have led to good and noble ideas. 

But good ideas without plans and the means to execute them are just dreams with no promise of accomplishment. The Texas Legislature moved in the right direction by offering financial support to many of the programs under PEI, increasing funding by more than $25 million from 2016-17 to 2018-19. With these funds, DFPS and PEI have increased their capability to serve their mission, but the final question DFPS, PEI, and lawmakers must ask themselves is, “Are we making a measurable and positive difference in the lives of families and children in the state of Texas?” 

Remember: At stake here is not just public approval or taxpayer dollars, but the health and lives of children. Therefore DFPS and PEI must implement a solid plan, based on evidence of its efficacy. There are not enough funds to ensure that the policymakers’ dreams do not become another child’s nightmare. It is tempting to set goals, measure accomplishments, and stop when those tasks have been completed, but it has never been more important to resist the urge to self-congratulate in the face of assumed achievement. The work does not end when the checklist is complete. The need to edit, refine, reframe, and execute new and improved plans will never fade where child abuse and maltreatment is concerned. 

To further emphasize the necessity of continued monitoring and revision, it should be noted that this is not the first time the state of Texas has made sweeping changes to its foster care system. 

One of the most disheartening discoveries in Judge Jack’s 2015 ruling was reviewed under the Findings of Facts and Law. This section specifically noted that in 2009, then-Gov. Rick Perry commissioned a committee to review and make recommendations on the Texas Foster Care System. That 2009 committee proposed 14 different recommendations in response to their review. After their proposal was completed, the committee then unearthed a 1996 report from a similarly charged committee under the direction of former Gov. George W. Bush. The 2009 committee found that 11 of the 14 recommendations they had just written were nearly identical to recommendations made in 1996. 

This finding effectively accused a well-meaning system of failing our youth. Since 1996, all the wishful thinking, recommendations, and even the executed plans had not changed some of the broken system’s underlying flaws. 

This time around must be different. It is up to us — as legislators, policymakers, community leaders, health care workers, parents, and Texans — to be honest and critical with ourselves. We cannot wait for another Judge Jack to hold up a mirror so we can see our ugly reflection once it is already too late. We must admit that trial is rarely without error, and that mistakes will be made. We must be humble enough to acknowledge our weaknesses and courageous enough to make changes for the future. 

According the 2015 DFPS Databook, 66,721 of the 7.3 million children in Texas are confirmed victims of abuse and neglect, and 17,151 Texas children are placed in substitute care. 

Children cannot speak or act on behalf of themselves. So now I ask you with a spirit of hope and a hunger for positive change: Are you willing to be their advocate?

Courtney Welch is a 2019 M.D. candidate at the Texas Tech University Health Science Center School of Medicine

Special thanks to Desiree Ojo, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center master’s in public health and public administration Candidate, 2019, who for this article shared resources and research she gathered in preparation for her upcoming roundtable, “Saving the Texas Foster Care System: A Special Panel.” More information about the panel and Facebook live stream on May 8 can be found here:

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