Bexar County, which is home to San Antonio, leads the State of Texas in the rate of removal of children in child abuse and neglect cases and in the rate of re-victimization of children who have been previously removed by Child Protective Services (CPS) and returned to their families.
These dubious distinctions sounded an alarm to the child advocates and the court system that is statutorily charged to protect children. With communication and collaboration among all the stakeholders in our community, we created and implemented the Bexar County Children’s Court Redesign in the fall of 2014.
The following is an overview of how we safely reduced by nearly a third the number of youths being removed from their families.
The vision of this project was to create and promote a more effective and efficient child welfare system to better protect children and empower families by focusing on the court system. To implement our vision, we first assessed our flaws in our system.
We identified that CPS was perpetually plagued with high caseworker turnover – 40 percent — and that caused failure of communication and service delivery to the families most in need. With data and metrics, we also identified that our court system was overwhelmed with case filings and many protracted and unnecessary court hearings.
We found that the quality of court-appointed attorneys was inconsistent and a few attorneys were not personally visiting with their child clients and not providing quality representation for parents to help guide them through the child welfare system. We saw inconsistency of prosecution by the State’s Attorneys in determining whether legal removal of children and returning children to their families were truly in the best interests of the children.
We also found that CPS had become overly dependent on the courts to make case management decisions, and that the judges were making all the case management decisions of determining services, placement of children and requiring CPS to seek court permission for any and all ministerial actions.
And one of the biggest flaws in our child welfare system was the failure to coordinate services with the nonprofit organizations that the county contracts with to support children and families (i.e. drug and alcohol rehabilitation treatment, mental health treatment and batterers’ intervention programs for domestic violence).
Quite often, they were left out of any discussions and hearings involving the best interests of children. This created a patchwork of services and inconsistent application of the law to the families most in need.
In Bexar County, we employ two full time Associate Judges with full court staff and courtroom to hear CPS cases on a daily basis. Redesign created two additional staff positions to assist the two presiding judges who were hearing CPS cases on a daily basis.
We decided that the two positions would be filled with tenured and experienced CPS caseworkers that knew investigation, family preservation and legal conservatorship cases, meaning that they were the best CPS caseworkers that the Court could employ. Their mission is to assist the judges in helping them assess all child abuse and neglect cases that came before them; to answer any questions of CPS policy and practice or get the answers from the appropriate sources; and to establish communication and collaboration with the nonprofit organizations that provide direct services to the families in the court system.
Two other big changes brought about by the redesign involved our nonprofit partners. Newly elected District Attorney Nico LaHood agreed to give up office space to allow offices for the nonprofit organizations right next to the courtrooms to allow direct and easy access of services for the parents and families that come to court.
Meanwhile, we established new expectations of nonprofits by requiring evidence-based outcomes with data and metrics that would allow the flow of information between them and the Court.
For the past fiscal year, we have reduced the number of cases filed for removal by 30 percent, nearly 3,000 fewer court orders for removal. The Court had much more time to spend on the needs of individual cases, and more reunifications with families are occurring with the enhanced communication and collaboration of all the stakeholders.
Initially, change was very difficult for some of the stakeholders, from the judges and their court staff, prosecutors, attorney ad litems and any other persons involved with the court system. CPS and the nonprofit organizations welcomed and embraced the changes that were being implemented.
Bexar County has been most fortunate to have a highly renowned and successful Bexar County Family Drug Treatment Court, which provides wraparound services and intensive supervision with a multidisciplinary team approach to parents with addiction who have had their children removed from them. We have a 1 percent recidivism rate of parents who successfully graduate from this program. It is a true example of restorative justice.
To copy this model, we are in near completion of a $1.5 million grant that will create the Bexar County Early Intervention Program of the Children’s Court to focus on mothers and their infants and young toddlers who have CPS intervention. This program will focus heavily on the mental health needs of the mothers and the bonding and attachment issues of our most vulnerable children of the foster care system. This is scheduled to come on line in the Spring of 2016.
We are committed to positive change to our child welfare system, including the court system; to continue to use data and metrics to measure our successes and flaws, and to promote communication and collaboration with all stakeholders, especially our nonprofit organizations like the Children’s Shelter of San Antonio, which has established evidence based outcomes for their parenting classes and child assessment programs.
As we see a national push to make a greater investment in prevention and early intervention programs that support families, we are proud to have a model that other counties and states can learn from. We know that the changes we’ve made will result in better outcomes for children and families as providers are better able to coordinate and communicate with the court system in holding parents accountable.
We know we can change the world for children and families. In working with organizations like the Children’s Shelter – who is also advocating nationally as part of the Keeping Kids in Families Campaign – we are not only helping to improve outcomes for families but we are carrying this message beyond our county, and even our state, to show, on a national scale, an example of what is possible. Through our work, we are confident that we will see fewer children in our foster care system and we will have a healthier community for all to live in.
Peter Sakai is a judge for the 225th District Court in Texas.