DATELINE TEXAS One Judge’s Appeal BY KAREN OLSSON Late in September of 1997, a neighbor glanced up at the window of a dilapidated house in west Austin, saw an unfamiliar little girl peering out, and called Child Protective Services. Nine-year old Victoria Barr made headlines after C.P.S. investigated and found that she had not left the filthy, rat-infested house since early childhood. It was also discovered that C.P.S. had received three previous calls about her, none of which resulted in her rescue. A year later, says state district court Judge F. Scott McCown, “one of the ironies about Victoria’s case is how people in the system resent the attention she’s gotten, because cases that are just as bad though not as unusual are there every week. …That case was not more horrible than what we see regularly.” It’s a point McCown emphasizes in a 42page report he recently submitted to the Governor and the Legislature. “A Petition in Behalf of the Forsaken Children of Texas” begins with the stories of both Victoria Barr and Nakia Cole. Cole, whose case never made the papers, was a neglected six-weekold boy who bled to death in an east Austin house around the same time Victoria Barr was discovered. C.P.S. had also received previous calls about Cole’s household. The report uses these stories and a bunch of not-so-subtle analogies to drive home its argument: that C.P.S. is severely underfunded and as a result fails to help thousands of abused and neglected children. “I wanted it to be accessible. I wanted it to be something people could read who didn’t have \\a lot of background in the system, and it would be clear,” says McCown of the report, which he researched and wrote on his own time, out of personal concern. When McCown presented his results to the board of the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services on October 23, he concluded with a series of slides of formerly neglected or abused children who’d been successfully adopted. Up until that point his presentation had been businesslike, but as happy-looking kids beamed down from the NOVEMBER 6, 1998 -.-4-<, screen, the judge started to choke up. McCown is as known for his sincerity as he is for his accomplishments he was a U.T. law professor at age twenty-seven, served as the attorney general's point man on prison reform, and, after being elected to the bench in 1988, presided over the tangled Edgewood school finance reform case. He began the C.P.S. project last year, after getting a call from a frustrated deputy sheriff who works as a child-abuse investigator. "I had lunch with a with a C.P.S. investigator who was talking about how they only have half their [positions] filled," says Deputy Sheriff Russell Halverson. "It was ridiculous." Halverson, who works in the same building as Travis County's C.P.S. workers, said he was walking down the hall later, and saw another investigator at her desk. "She told me she'd been up the past twenty-four hours.... She'd had six or seven removals. She got real emotional. I'd just had enough, and I vented to him [McCown]." McCown started researching the lack of investigators, assuming it was simply due to a local funding shortfall. "It didn't become clear what the ,problem was until I put the charts together," says McCown, who eventually compiled thirteen years of data on agency performance. What he learned was that, statewide, the 44,536 children whom C.P.S. confirmed as abused last year represents a 28 percent decrease though the state's child population has increased about 16 percent over that time. That's not because fewer children are being abused or neglected, or because funding hasn't been increased in proportion to the child population. Rather, it's that an ever growing share of that limited funding is spent on the children already in the system \(the children "in the rescue boat," as Mcter care has more than doubled since 1985, and as C.P.S. has devoted more of its resources to those kids, there's less available for new investigations. \("The C.P.S. boat is so heavily loaded with previously rescued children that it moves slowly to the scene of ,,, 44, the next crisis and once there has little space The result is a policy of addressing only the very worst cases. Compared to the national average, Texas qualifies far fewer reports of abuse as actionable "reports," assigns only 60 percent of those reports to be investigated, confirms abuse at a lower rate, and removes children from abusive homes much less often. Texas removed 7,723 kids from homes in 1996; McCown calculates that at least twice as many would have been removed if the state were performing at the national average. The agency, McCown says, must shift its focus from triage to prevention. Over the short term, this means asking the Legislature to designate 2 percent of the $8 billion surplus for C.P.S., a figure McCown said he arrived at by estimating "how fast you could reasonably expect the agency to grow." His message was warmly received at P.R.S. "We anecdotally understood the problem, in terms of overall resources," said Executive Director James Hine, "but this is the first time anybody's taken all the data and taken a real longitudinal look, and Judge McCown's done a very good job." It's of course up to the Legislature to provide adequate resources. In what McCown termed "a wonderful response" from George Bush, the governor promised that funding for caseworkers and foster care services will increase, and that the report's other recommendations "will be carefully considered." "It's a natural next step for George Bush, since it builds on what he's done with juvenile justice reform," says McCown. "Of course, we're going about it backwards: first adult prisons, then juvenile justice, then child protective services. We would've been smart to do it the other way around." Should Bush champion an improved C.P.S., McCown says it would exemplify the "vision" recently attributed to both Bush and his brother Jeb by New Yorker writer Joe Klein. "I thought that was an interesting article," says McCown, who is clearly a diplomat as well as a Democrat. "Very interesting." THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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