Gov. Greg Abbott had been in office just six days before facing his first tragedy involving a child under the state's care. Justice Hull, a two-month-old girl from Dallas, was drowned by the 14-year-old daughter of Hull’s state-approved caretaker on Jan. 26, 2015.
In the days following the infant's death, Abbott’s aides sent dozens of emails to executives at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services seeking to understand how Child Protective Services had allowed Hull to live in a home where she would be murdered, and trying to determine how many other children might be at risk.
It was the beginning of an email correspondence, comprising thousands of pages over four and a half months, that documents a governor and his reform-minded staff becoming deeply involved in the operations of the state’s child welfare agency from Abbott’s very first days in office.
The emails, obtained by The Texas Tribune under open records law, reveal an ambitious approach from Abbott’s staff that placed paramount importance on preventing child deaths — even when that meant radical changes to an agency ill-equipped to handle them, creating a spike in the number of children sleeping in CPS offices because the state had no other placements. But they also capture the frustration of a new governor's staff not initially conversant in the machinery of the state's foster care system, looking for solutions with little money and few suggestions to offer.
The agency's problems have only grown more challenging as officials now grapple with a federal court ruling that found the Texas foster care system inhumane, a chronic lack of funding from state lawmakers for child placements and negative media coverage of recent child deaths.
The $1.7 billion-per-year agency has about 12,700 employees. At any given time, about 28,000 children are wards of the state.
The emails reveal that Abbott's primary focus has been on curtailing problems with a particular tool used by the agency known as Parental Child Safety Placements. When agency workers decide a child should be removed from an unsafe home quickly, they often try to find friends or extended family that can take the child in temporarily. The placement is less jarring for the child and cheaper for the state than a formal foster placement where the state assumes custody.
Hull had been in such a placement when she died. On March 1, 2015, Houston toddler Codrick McCall became the second child in such a placement to die on Abbott's watch. The four-year-old boy fatally shot himself after finding a handgun under a bed at the home of his mother's relative's where he was staying. Again, Abbott’s staffers pressed the Department of Family and Protective Services for information about the placement and how it had come to be.
After a third child, three-year-old Audrey Torres, died on March 8 in a car accident apparently caused by her father driving drunk, Abbott went public with his concerns. The governor wrote a critical letter to Texas Department of Family and Protective Services head John Specia ordering the agency to get its act together. Unlike Hull and McCall, Torres was not in a parental child safety placement, but Abbott’s message was clear: He wanted no more tragedies.
"Abuse or neglect of our most vulnerable Texans — our children — is intolerable, and it is especially unacceptable when it happens to a child under the care umbrella of the State of Texas," he wrote.
Under scrutiny from the governor’s office, the department stopped placing any additional children in parental child safety placements while it studied ways to improve safety.
It was a dramatic change for a program that at the time touched the lives of more than 10,000 children each month. The number of deaths from abuse or neglect in parental child safety placements has hovered between zero and two per year since 2012, according to the agency.
Leaders at the Department of Family and Protective Services appeared to welcome the scrutiny, but they cautioned the governor's staff that restricting the pool of parental child safety placements by eliminating families with criminal or CPS history could strain the foster care system greatly to get rid of a few bad apples. An internal agency review last year found serious safety concerns with just 0.05 percent of parental child safety placements.
“PCSPs are safe,” Specia wrote in a presentation to the governor’s office on May 7. He pointed out that restricting those placements would likely increase the number of child removals, placing higher demand on the state’s foster care system. That would cost an average of $42,000 per child, Specia wrote.
Outside groups have praised the governor’s actions. They describe Abbott and his wife, Cecilia, the parents of an adopted daughter, as well-meaning policymakers who have drawn needed attention to a broken system.
Parental Child Safety Placements are “something that is very much on his mind, something that he really clearly personally cares about,” said Andy Homer, director of public affairs for the advocacy group Texas CASA, which recently honored the Abbotts as champions for children. “His involvement early on set the stage for a lot of things during the [legislative] session.”
Homer called the decision to cut back on riskier placements a “positive step.” Since McCall’s death, the department says it is not aware of any deaths caused by abuse or neglect in Parental Child Safety Placements, though there have been two additional fatalities in the program in fiscal year 2016.
But not all of the results have been positive. Homer acknowledged curtailing the placements has put “more pressure on the system,” which has left the agency struggling to find places for children removed from their homes. New restrictions limiting the agency’s ability to place children in Parental Child Safety Placements caused CPS removals to grow 37 percent between January 2015 and January 2016, according to the agency.
Meanwhile, the number of children in Parental Child Safety Placements fell 56 percent over the same time period. That corresponded with a spike in the number of children spending multiple nights in state offices, the state’s placement of last resort, to its highest point in nearly a decade.
Child welfare advocates say they hope the system’s newly exposed weaknesses will push state leaders to champion other reforms, foremost an expansion of foster care capacity, with the same enthusiasm. That would mean finding more foster families and residential care facilities that can provide kids with permanent homes.
“It is a crisis-oriented system, and CPS is constantly playing defense, so they don’t have the time to look at substantive, systemic change,” said Katherine Barillas of child advocacy group One Voice Texas.
“Nor does the public give them time,” she said. “A child dies, people want to know something has changed, and it’s changed now.”
The correspondence also reveals the limits of the governor’s ambitions, which could offer only meager financial support to back up the reforms.
For example, in the early weeks of the 2015 legislative session, Abbott aide Kara Crawford asked the child welfare agency’s executive staff what they could accomplish with a hypothetical funding boost of $10 million. The emails show Crawford collaborating with staff from the office of state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, to set aside that funding — but it was ultimately whittled down to $5 million during lawmakers’ negotiations.
Occasionally, tensions arose between the new governor’s staffers and the more-experienced executive staff at the child welfare agency. The department initially struggled to answer questions on quick deadlines from Abbott staffers who appeared unfamiliar with many nuances of CPS policies.
And at times, Abbott’s aides expressed frustration with the agency, demanding to know why they hadn’t learned of children’s deaths more quickly. Once, Drew DeBerry, a policy director for the governor, asked the agency’s staff to print out a “dignifying” photo of every child who had died while in the state’s care — and deliver the stack of photos to the governor’s office.
Abbott’s involvement in the agency comes at a time of relative turmoil. Specia and his deputy of Child Protective Services, Lisa Black, stepped down last month. Abbott appointed longtime ally Charles Smith to head CPS in the interim.
Meanwhile a federal court ruling is breathing down the agency’s neck. U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled last December that Texas’ long-term foster care system had left children emotionally and physically damaged, infringing on their civil rights. Jack recently appointed two special masters to begin drawing up plans to fix the agency. Abbott has said he is disappointed in the ruling.
A spokesman for Abbott declined to answer questions about the department's reforms to Parental Child Safety Placements and the corresponding spike in children sleeping in offices. But the spokesman, John Wittman, said it was a “core responsibility of our state’s government” to protect children.
Abbott “will continue to work aggressively with other leaders in Texas to improve the services DFPS provides to the vulnerable children entrusted to the care of the Lone Star State,” Wittman said in an email.
Other emails from the department suggest it welcomes the governor’s approach to reform. On the morning of April 23, the department’s associate commissioner Katie Olse wrote to Crawford, the Abbott aide, about Crawford's focus on Parental Child Safety Placements.
“On a personal note, I’m so grateful for your ongoing interest in this issue,” she wrote. “I really think it is going to result in improvements for children.”