Removals of Texas children from abusive homes have reached their highest point since the 2008 polygamist sect raid, when hundreds of children were taken into custody in a single day.
In September, child welfare workers took nearly 1,500 children away from their families over allegations of abuse or neglect. That’s the highest single-month removal since April 2008, when Child Protective Services removals topped 1,600 — more than 400 of them from a West Texas polygamist ranch.
Child welfare officials attribute the recent spike to a variety of factors — from the economy to the fallout from a major court ruling.
But experts say it’s more likely that the child welfare system is just correcting itself. They say lawmakers and advocates have worked for years to keep kids safe without removing them from their families. Now, the pendulum is swinging back ever so slightly.
“What happened was, they weren’t removing enough kids — they were leaving kids in situations they needed to be removed from,” said F. Scott McCown, a former judge and executive director of the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. “We’ve reached the limit on the proportion of kids we’re going to find can safely be left at home.”
Throughout 2005 and 2006, monthly child welfare removals routinely topped 1,500. But by the beginning of 2007, they were dropping, coinciding with statewide efforts to keep more children out of foster care — and with their parents or other relatives.
The April 2008 polygamist raid sent an unexpected shock through the child welfare system. But removals bottomed out by the end of that year, the result of a federal appeals court ruling that made it harder for child welfare workers to remove kids from their homes.
CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the spike in removals since the court case means caseworkers are getting comfortable with the new rules. He said the timeframe also corresponds with the country’s economic downturn.
“Poor economic conditions are a well-known stressor on families,” he said, “so increased abuse/neglect reports and removals of children can be expected.”
He said the agency is also seeing more removals than usual from its Family-Based Safety Services program, designed to help at-risk families keep their children at home.
CPS officials say there’s no problem with the program, and that removal numbers often fluctuate.
“In recent years we’ve made a concerted effort to keep families together if at all possible,” Crimmins said. “Some of these cases are just hard.”
But McCown said this statewide effort to keep families together has actually been too effective; so many kids were kept with their parents that Family-Based Safety Services "was overwhelmed." Texas, which is already a low removal state, effectively reached its own limit, McCown said.
“You can’t drive removals down to zero,” McCown said. “They’ve reached the limits of that strategy, and they’re correcting for it.”