The Dallas Morning News
March 16, 2016
Texas’ child protection woes date back two decades, but they took on special urgency in 2016 as state officials missed clear signs of abuse before a young girl was brutally killed. Determined to hold decision-makers accountable, The Dallas Morning News painstakingly documented the crisis, prompting officials to address problems that endangered thousands of children.
Our efforts began when reporter Robert T. Garrett learned that Child Protective Services’ investigative functions in Dallas-Fort Worth were falling apart. Caseworkers were quitting. Children were in imminent danger. Colleague J. David McSwane discovered that children reported as abused weren’t being seen for weeks or months even though state guidelines call for visits within days. Garrett and McSwane spent months piecing together the failings, combining deep sourcing with a relentless pursuit of public records and innovative data work. Their data analysis found that tens of thousands of children weren’t being checked on promptly and thousands weren’t being seen at all.
The reporters obtained confidential files and agency data that detailed more than 10,000 child abuse cases. To work around a trickle of public records and incomplete data, they targeted records requests and questions at what they learned was a pipeline of information between CPS and aides to Gov. Greg Abbott, who had declared that stopping child fatalities was his top priority. The reporters plucked information and data from hundreds of emails and internal memos and tracked how much Abbott knew as the crisis worsened.
McSwane and Garrett knew this was a story that couldn’t wait to be published as a comprehensive package. The threat to children was ongoing. They began evaluating CPS’ own performance metrics, nearly in real-time, to determine how often the state was failing at-risk children. They achieved this by frequently requesting samples of data on delinquent caseloads and “face-to-face” updates that were quietly shared with upper management as the situation worsened. They were able to show how many kids weren’t being seen in all of the state’s 254 counties.
The News also forced a discussion of state worker pay. the issue of state worker pay to the forefront of public debate. Initially, the Abbott administration resisted any discussion of pay raises for CPS caseworkers, consistently identified as the best way to reduce turnover and thus increase attention to children’s cases. State leaders eventually relented, approving raises in December.
Without The News’ efforts, many of these problems would have remained hidden and unchanged, if not worsened.
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Submitted by Keith Campbell.