Sunday, April 13, 2008

Raid of polygamist compound delivers daunting task for Child Protective Services

By EMILY RAMSHAW and ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

Caseworkers, attorneys and guardians responsible for the hundreds of children removed from a West Texas polygamist compound last week are now grasping the reality of their workload – hundreds of painstaking interviews, thousands of pages of records and an ever-growing sense that they may be in over their heads.

Child Protective Services, which has never had a case this big, has dispatched close to 700 employees, or about a tenth of its statewide staff. Agency leaders say the situation is under control.

But former child welfare officials and outsiders who deal with CPS have their doubts. Since a complete overhaul of the agency four years ago, CPS still struggles to retain workers and keep an eye on foster children. Some fear a new operation of this size could drain the agency's limited resources and divert attention from existing cases.

"A case like this has a ripple effect. It's not just caseworkers, but foster parents, and law enforcement, and attorneys, and guardians, and judges," said Cathy O. Morris, a child welfare lawyer retired from CPS. "There are a lot of components to the system that will all be stretched. Right now, it's mind-boggling to even contemplate."

Child welfare workers acknowledge they've got an incredible challenge. Hundreds of them have been sent to West Texas, leaving regional offices short-staffed and their own cases in others' hands as they investigate the extent of abuse and neglect inside the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints religious ranch in Eldorado.

Investigators expect that many of the girls in their custody – some as young as 13 – have been forced into plural marriages with adult men, some of the girls repeatedly raped and beaten. Several girls have babies or are pregnant. And workers may struggle to even determine the ages and parents of the 416 children in custody, as the youths they must interview are conditioned to see them as the enemy.

Feeling prepared

Although the workload looks daunting, CPS officials say they can handle it. The agency dramatically increased the number of investigators on staff in recent years. And they've got help – from victims' rights groups, volunteer attorneys and the emergency funding authorized Thursday by Gov. Rick Perry and top state leaders.

"This is not CPS going it alone," agency spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said.

It's unclear what the operation will cost the agency, but the Texas Division of Emergency Management is spending about $30,000 a day on food, personal products, toys and medical services, Ms. Meisner said.

Child welfare workers aren't the only ones facing a tremendous workload. The West Texas legal system is hardly built for such an influx of cases.

Stretched thin

The Schleicher County Courthouse, centered in the two-stoplight town of Eldorado, has three employees. Last week, they worked with giant stacks of records – and two typewriters – to file the child custody cases into their system, before getting help from neighboring Tom Green County.

"You see my staff," said Peggy Williams, the county clerk. "We've had more cases filed here in a week than we've seen in a whole year."

In the larger community of San Angelo, court employees struggled over the incessant hum of the copy machines to field calls from lawyers, and to serve papers to the parents of children in state custody, many of whom had similar names.

"The work's just fixin' to begin," District Clerk Sheri Woodfin said.

Meanwhile, state officials are working overtime to secure legal counsel for each of the 416 children before Thursday's custody hearing. Nearly 75 lawyers between San Angelo and Eldorado have offered their services. So far, at least 50 North Texas lawyers have joined up, said Alicia Hernandez, director of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program.

If a judge decides the children should be in foster care, CPS will hit a new set of hurdles.

The foster care system has been troubled in recent years. The state has had problems overseeing private placement agencies and finding enough beds for children removed from their birth parents.

In routine cases, child placement agencies try to keep siblings together and house them in comparable religious and geographic settings. But some of the sect children have as many as eight siblings, making this unlikely.

And advocates fear that putting another 416 children into foster homes will mean other youth aren't removed from dangerous settings. Roy Block, former president of the Texas Foster Family Association, said that in his 18 years as a foster parent, he's seen that happen every time foster beds are scarce.

"You can just look at the charts: When there are capacity issues, there are less children removed," said Mr. Block, whose family has offered to take children and mothers from the compound into their San Antonio home.

CPS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said he's confident no existing cases are suffering. Experienced employees are being deployed only where they can be spared, he said, leaving all regions with most of their staff intact. In the Dallas office, child welfare advocate Madeline McClure said, 18 investigators have been deployed, six at a time.

Agency officials say there is not a plan in place for foster parents yet. They haven't ruled out putting the children in foster homes outside of Texas. And there appears to be growing support for housing many of the children with their mothers in camplike retreats or larger residential homes.

State officials said Friday that the mothers and children will remain in San Angelo shelters through Thursday's custody hearing.

'Broken system'

The massive child welfare action comes at a turbulent time for CPS, still recovering from disasters years ago. In 2004, Mr. Perry called it a "broken system," after the gruesome deaths of several children that child-abuse investigators visited and chose to leave with their families.

The fatal beatings of three North Texas foster children between 2005 and 2006 underscored another serious shortfall: the state's faulty oversight of a mostly privatized system of foster home recruitment and training.

Last year, lawmakers poured an extra $91 million into the department, approving the hiring of nearly 1,100 people to help fix foster care. That same year, CPS reversed a decade-long trend, getting more children out of state care – through adoption or reunification with biological parents and relatives – than it took in. Before the West Texas case, CPS was on track to remove 13,500 children from their homes, down from more than 17,000 a few years ago.

But CPS' reputation has suffered, as has its employee morale. Last year, more than 40 percent of investigators quit. The vacancy rate for CPS investigators in Dallas County in January was 43 percent, said Ms. McClure, the child welfare advocate.

"They really do come together and stick together during crises like this," she said of the CPS staff. "It's when there's an ongoing burden, a never-ending light at the end of the tunnel, where people burn out and give up. "

To do this right, former CPS program administrator Susan Etheridge said, the agency needs to summon the "whole team." Private foster placement agencies. Mental health counselors. Children's advocacy centers. And maybe even large, church-affiliated children's homes.

The outpouring of state and local support – from individual families to large foster care providers – has given agency officials optimism. One child-placing official, Irene Clements, said calls are coming in to her private agency from families as far away as Wisconsin asking to help.

"People come out of the woodwork," she said.

Original Article -

Raid of polygamist compound delivers daunting task for Child Protective Services Dallas Morning News News for Dallas, Tex...

The scope of CPS

In the West Texas raid, 416 children were removed over the course of two days. That's a little more than one-half of 1 percent of the agency's workload in the last fiscal year, when 71,344 cases of abuse were confirmed. On the other hand, it is slightly more than two usual days' worth of CPS-confirmed abuse cases statewide, all happening in one small area.

SOURCE: Department of Family and Protective Services

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