By Randy Burton
According to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, 3,000,000 new reports of child abuse or neglect are made every year, one report every ten seconds. On average, Children’s Protective Services, or “CPS,” confirms 1,000,000 of these cases; however, records show that 72% of all children who were confirmed as abused or neglected did not receive any follow-up assistance from CPS. Of those cases reported, an estimated 1,300 children die each year of abuse or neglect – most at their parent’s hands. 90% of those children were age five or younger. Almost half of these victims had a case with CPS. Many children who survive abuse are returned to dangerous homes only to be repeatedly victimized and cycle through the system.
These preventable child deaths and the re-incidence of abuse are not merely the result of incompetency or excessive caseloads, but rather the direct and predictable consequence of a social agenda that has placed a higher priority on preserving the “family unit” and rehabilitating offenders than protecting children.
This agenda was derived from CPS’ parent, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. From the early 1900’s, the philosophy developed that it was more important to “rescue the bad home for the child” than to “rescu[e] the child from the bad home”. While present day CPS has developed into a mammoth agency with numerous programs and agendas, the mission to “rescue the bad home” has remained the driving force behind this agency.
My introduction to this system began at the Harris County D.A.’s Office in the 1980s. It was there, as a young prosecutor, that I saw firsthand the results of leaving children with their abusive parents as part of CPS’ plan for the “family.” Besides the intimidation that led to the child’s refusal to testify, I learned about their re-abuse, and, occasionally, their death, and, decided to act. When I was promoted to the Chief Prosecutor of Family Violence, I collected evidence of the effects of this “family preservation” policy on prosecution efforts for over a year and submitted a report of my findings to our District Attorney. As a result of this report, The Houston Post investigated the problems at CPS and, in May of 1987, published its findings in a series of articles entitled “Children Who Die: A System Failure.”
A few days after this series ended, the death of Jesse Wheeler brought home the point of these articles. His story reads like this:
In 1987, 2-year-old Jesse was ordered removed from a loving, foster family where he had lived since he was five months old. Although he was the youngest of the five Wheeler children in foster care, he alone was returned to his biological mother in accordance with the family preservation policy of CPS, despite knowledge by CPS and the Court that his mother had recently married a man who had been indicted for the rape of a 4-year-old.
Shortly after his return to his mother, a CPS caseworker observed bruises and black eyes on Jesse but decided to “work with family.” The police were not contacted. A few days later, Jesse was life-flighted to Texas Children’s Hospital where he died with his foster parents by his side. Police found a hole and hair in wood paneling where Jesse’s stepfather swung his little head into the wall for refusing to eat his pizza. A subsequent autopsy also revealed that Jesse had been sexually assaulted.
Like so many child murder cases, Jesse’s case involved evidence of ongoing abuse and neglect that was ignored by CPS. His tragic death touched off a firestorm of adverse publicity for the agency and provided the catalyst for the formation of Justice for Children.
Following Jesse’s death and a number of high profile child fatalities in Harris County, we convinced the Texas Senate to convene statewide hearings into the problems at CPS. In February of 1989, following a year-long investigation, the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee published a highly critical report, which described CPS as an agency whose effectiveness and credibility had deteriorated to crisis levels. Later that same year, following my testimony before the Texas Performance Review Team, the Texas Senate recommended separating CPS from the rest of the Department of Human Services recognizing the inherent contradiction between the missions of child protection and family preservation in the same agency.
Justice for Children was founded upon the belief that every child is entitled to a zealous advocate to fight for their safety. When the system fails to provide such advocacy, we will. Since 1987, Justice for Children has grown to a nationwide, nonprofit organization with offices in Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Arizona, and, recently, Detroit, Michigan. We have been featured on ABC News PrimeTime Live, ABC News 20/20, ABC‘s Good Morning America, HBO’s America Undercover: “Women on Trial,” The Discovery Channel’s Justice Files, the Phil Donahue Show, and CNN’s Nancy Grace Show. Our Attorney Training Program was selected as the winner of the Public Service Award, Young Lawyer’s Division, by the American Bar Association at its annual convention. Much of the work done at JFC is performed by volunteer attorneys and interns from various universities and law schools.
Today, our child advocacy work is accomplished on a number of different levels: We provide information about the plight of abused children to our community and elected leaders; we provide advocacy and support for individual abused children; and, we recommend solutions for the critical challenges facing abused children. Each year, our office receives thousands of requests nationwide to provide advocacy for victims of child abuse. Through our services, we help remove obstacles to child protection and to the prosecution of their offenders.
Our volunteers accomplish this by building a case file for each child and working closely with caseworkers from Children’s Protective Services, police, prosecutors, and the court system (family, juvenile, and criminal). We also make appropriate referrals to attorneys for pro bono or low cost legal representation of children and protective mothers, to physicians specializing in the diagnosis of sexual and physical abuse of children, and to trained therapists who assist in the emotional recovery of children and who help prepare the child for possible court testimony. Volunteer lawyers provide amicus briefs, legal research, document analysis, and other litigation support. This is what we exist to do.
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Since 1987, I have donated roughly 500 hours per year of my time and legal services to Justice for Children and its cases. I receive no remuneration for my services and chose a practice in Business Litigation in order to avoid the accusation that my association with this cause is for financial benefit.