The number of Dallas County children confirmed as victims of abuse or neglect increased a dramatic 37.6% in 2017, based on Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) data for its Child Protective Services (CPS) division.[1]  In total, 6,242 or 9 out of every 1,000, Dallas County children, were confirmed victims of abuse or neglect last year.  By comparison, the number of confirmed child victims increased statewide 8.5% and dropped 2.9% in adjacent Collin County.

Despite the steep increase in confirmed victims, an abused or neglected child was actually less likely to be removed from a Dallas County home and brought into protective care last year. The total number of children removed from home because of a continuing danger dropped 10% in 2017 compared to the prior year. The rate of removal also dropped. Roughly 25% of confirmed child victims in Dallas were brought into the state’s protective care in 2017, representing a total of 1,580 children, compared to 40% of confirmed child victims in Dallas who came into the legal custody of the state the prior year.

Reconciling a 38% surge in confirmed child victims with a 10% drop in the total number of abused and neglected children brought into protective care is difficult. The stock market may be easier to predict and it has only investor dollars at risk. Making sense of data anomalies in the child welfare system is particularly challenging when the curves are not smooth and when fluctuations occur over a relatively short period of time.  For example, the overall annual drop in child removals in 2017 for Dallas County was 10%, but the year-over-year comparison in two consecutive months showed an average drop of more than 100% (393 v. 193) in child removals from FY16 to FY17.

While removals decreased last year, the number of children in cases referred to family based safety services (FBSS) increased. FBSS is a CPS intervention that can be effective in avoiding the trauma of removal in appropriate circumstances when removal is not determined to be necessary.  Frequent contact and effective monitoring are critical because the children have not been taken into CPS legal custody. In the second half of last year, however, caseloads for Dallas County FBSS caseworkers increased, actually exceeding those of conservatorship caseworkers assigned to children who already have been removed from home and are living in protective care.  Caseloads for CPS investigators receive focused attention from the media and legislature because of the tie to the time it takes to respond to reports of suspected child abuse.  And the size of CPS conservatorship worker caseloads is a pivotal data point in the federal court opinion, now on appeal, ordering reforms to the Texas foster care system.  But the caseloads of FBSS caseworkers receive far less public attention. Fortunately, the size of FBSS caseloads has been decreasing in Dallas County since the start of the 2018 fiscal year.  Advocacy from the Dallas County Child Welfare Board, with support from the Dallas County Commissioners Court, has helped lower the caseloads of county-paid FBSS caseworkers, which are capped at 15 cases under the County’s contract supplementing state funding for designated positions.

Another encouraging observation is that the dramatic increase in confirmed victims in Dallas County last year was not matched by a surge in reports of child abuse or neglect.  The number of allegations increased 1.6% in 2017, with an even lower net change, factoring in a 1% growth in Dallas County’s child population. The nearly 38% increase in the number of confirmed child victims appears to be driven instead by a much higher number of completed CPS investigations in Dallas County compared to 2016.  Last year’s 25% increase in the number of completed investigations in Dallas County was accompanied by a gain in the number of CPS workers assigned to investigations. It makes sense that more investigations can be completed when more resources are available, especially with the improved hiring and retention rates CPS has been reporting for Dallas County. Those gains have resulted in impressive reductions in the size of caseloads for investigators and in shortened response times, meaning investigators are making face-to-face contact with children more quickly in response to urgent reports of suspected abuse and neglect.

A recent media report cited an increase in the number of abuse and neglect related child fatalities in Texas, based on data from 2016.  In both 2015 and 2016, 24 Dallas County children died as a result of abuse or neglect.  While recognizing one child’s death is one death too many, the more recent report of seven abuse or neglect related child fatalities in Dallas County for 2017 is a clear signal of movement in the right direction.  Two of last year’s seven child fatalities had CPS history.  The tragic death of Sherin Mathews of Richardson occurred after the start of the new CPS fiscal year and will be included in 2018 data expected to be released in February 2019.

Looking ahead, what can be expected in CPS fiscal year 2018, which began on September 1, 2017?  Based on actual data for the first seven months of fiscal year 2018, and trends over the last 12 months, the number of Dallas County child removals in DFPS FY18 is projected to increase by at least 29%.

What does that upward trend in removals mean for Dallas CASA, an organization committed to providing a voice for every child who needs us?  Today, Dallas CASA is meeting total children served milestones in its plan to grow the number of assigned volunteer advocates to reach its goal of giving a voice to every child in need.  But the size of the need now appears to be on the brink of exponential and unprecedented growth. With last year’s surge in confirmed child victims and with current child removal rates running high, our resolve to recruit more volunteer advocates and to raise more resources to expand program capacity simply must intensify. How might you be willing to support our effort?