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Increases in Child Abuse & Neglect Cases Strain Travis County Courts

Separate from the Supreme Court's recent decision, a federal court will decide on the constitutionality of Texas redistricting.
Private attorneys are being hired to represent child abuse and neglect cases in Travis County because of a shortfall of attorneys.

This story comes to us from our city hall reporting partner, the Austin Monitor.

Representatives of Travis County children and parents involved in legal abuse and neglect cases have only 10-minute judicial hearings to present evidence of their safety and living situations, according to county civil court judges. County attorneys for indigent children and parents say their caseloads are to the point that they must hire private attorneys to help represent those involved.

At a recent budget hearing, Judge Lora Livingston said the rise in caseloads places stress on the court systems, resulting in a “dire need” for more resources to serve this vulnerable population of children and their families.

Livingston, the administrative judge for Travis County’s district judges, requested $554,654 to hire an associate judge and four supporting court staff members to focus on the increasing Child Protective Services caseloads, to allow judges to spend more time on each case. However, the budget office did not recommend funding for Livingston’s request.

CPS caseworkers who investigate allegations of abuse and neglect petition to begin civil court action only after determining children are unsafe in their homes. Within 14 days after a case has been filed, a judge must determine the appropriate placement for the child, whether that be with another family member, a foster parent or a group home. Until parental rights are terminated, the child is under temporary managing conservatorship with the state, and court hearings are continued typically on a quarterly basis for the judge to determine if the child is appropriately cared for and if the parents have completed the necessary steps to take their child home.

State and federal law requires that the court reach a permanent resolution for the child’s safety within a 12 to 18 month period. If the children are unable to return to their parents and parents relinquish their rights to the children, they are placed under either permanent care of the state until they are adopted or age out of the system on their 18th birthday.

“We have to make some tough choices at the courthouse when we decide where they’re going to spend the night and with whom, and will they be safe,” Livingston said.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges recommends that CPS hearings be allotted 30 to 60 minutes per case. However, in Travis County, judges hear up to seven cases per hour, averaging less than 9 minutes each.

“That, I would suggest to you, is just simply inadequate,” Livingston told commissioners. “We do these families and these children a disservice when we do not spend the time and the energy to try to find solutions for their circumstances. We owe them better than that.”

Livingston said there has been a 61 percent increase from 2008 to 2013 in the number of CPS cases filed with the county, and a 270 percent increase in the number of hearings that result from these cases. In 2008, there were 287 cases filed and 1,636 hearings held on those cases. In 2013, there were 464 cases filed, resulting in 6,054 hearings.

Laura Wolf is the executive director of Travis County’s chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. CASA volunteers are responsible for obtaining as much information as possible on each child’s case and then providing to the judge informed recommendations as to what’s in each child’s best interest.

Wolf said the time spent on each child’s court hearing is significant, and that the hearings are some of the most important events in the life of a child or family.

“(The judges) they have are outstanding, and they put their heart and soul into these cases,” Wolf said. “But I know from watching them, from knowing them and from being in the courtroom, that everyone feels like we’re not able to give the kind of time and attention to these cases that we need to, and maybe if we could give more time and attention, we would get to better resolutions more quickly. Get kids and families out of that limbo situation.”

There has also been an increase in the number of children removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect countywide. Regional statistics from the Department of Family and Protective Services show there has been a 125 percent increase over the past five fiscal years, from 228 children removed from their homes to 513 from fiscal years 2009 to 2013. Removals are the result of a completed investigation into the family’s home and a decision from a civil court judge that the child is no longer safe there.

Julie Moody, regional spokeswoman for Family and Protective Services, said the state doesn’t track the number of cases in the courts but does track the number of children being removed from their homes, which is often indicative of court involvement. Moody said there are pockets across the state, like McLennan County surrounding Waco, that are similarly experiencing an increase in children being removed from their homes, and numbers are rising in these areas from month to month.

“The sad fact about these numbers is each number represents a child who has suffered sometimes unspeakable horrors in their own homes by the people who are supposed to protect them,” Moody said. “Unfortunately, I wish I could say that child abuse is becoming less common, but that’s just not the case.”

Livingston said it is reasonable to assume the number of CPS cases on the docket will continue to grow as the Travis County population and child poverty rates grow. The recent crossing of Central American children over the border illegally and potentially coming to the county could also increase future caseloads, as well as the uncertainty of funding for federal subsistence programs such as SNAP, and anticipated legislative appropriations and changes to DFPS and CPS at the state level.

Currently, the county has one district judge, Darlene Byrne, and two associate judges to hear all CPS and family law dockets. Each judge hears approximately 1,250 CPS cases per year. One of the two associate judges, John Hathaway, has been on loan from the Juvenile Justice Probation Department to assist with the dockets, but his two-year term will expire at the end of December. There has not been a new associate judge hired since 1995, and there has not been a new district court created since 2005.

Livingston said that essentially creating a new civil court will help judges keep pace with the CPS and family law dockets and double the amount of time each judge can spend on a hearing, allowing for 18 to 20 minutes per case, which still falls well below national recommendations. Adding another associate judge would also cut down the number of cases a judge hears per year from 1,250 to 835.

In July, Roger Jefferies of the county’s Criminal Justice Planning Department said individual attorneys with the Offices of Child Representation and of Parental Representation, who speak for low-income children and parents respectively, have reached their caseload limit. (See Austin Monitor, July 3.) This has pushed county money and caseloads to privately hired attorneys. In FY 2013 alone, the county spent $2,466,295 in private attorney’s fees due to the rising caseloads.

Commissioners have $4.3 million in reserves to work with during the early September budget markup, but there are numerous requests from other county departments to fund new staff as well as an overarching request to provide pay raises to most county employees. Livingston said it comes down to what Travis County wants to support.

“Do you want the policy of this county to be that we care about the kids that live in this community who are vulnerable, who cannot take care of themselves and who need the adults in their lives to do that for them?” she asked. “That’s what we’re asking you to do. We’re asking you to make a very tough choice … but what we’re telling you is that the children in this community deserve that support, and we’re asking that you give it to us.”

Beth Cortez-Neavel is a Digital Team member and web editor for the Texas Standard. She started in radio as a KUT intern in 2009 and returned to the Standard as part of its digital team in April 2015. She’s been happily working behind the scenes since. Beth has a M.A. in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She loves long-form news and radio. Her work has appeared on the Texas Observer, the Austin Monitor, KUT and the Austin-American-Statesman.
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