a personal call to action
by Randy Burton, founder of Justice for Children and the former Chief Prosecutor of Family Crimes at the Harris County District Attorney’s office.
urrently a partner with the national law firm of FisherBroyles LLP.
Child abuse, unfortunately, occurs far too often in our society today. As tragic as this fact is, it is equally tragic that many incidents of child abuse could be prevented. As a former member of the system designed to protect victims of child abuse from being re-abused by their family and “loved” ones, I can testify that the system currently in place is an utter failure.
Furthermore, merely reporting the crime to the “system” is not enough to ensure the protection of the child. This is because the protective network that consists of Child Protective Services (“CPS”), the various police agencies, the District Attorney’s office, the juvenile and family court system and the criminal court system do not work as they should. The sad result of this process is that nationwide, of the children who died from abuse and neglect, almost 50% were victims where CPS had current or prior case histories of abuse or neglect on the family. Arguably, this means hundreds of children whose lives could have been saved on an annual basis.
It was in response to these problems that I and a number of concerned citizens, both in the system and the community-at-large, formed a group called Justice for Children in May of 1987. Our community-based “watchdog” group has focused its attention on educating the public on problems that exist in the child protective system and working for constructive and permanent changes to this system. Although our group consists of individuals, who individually had attempted to improve the system for years, the case that catalyzed our organization as a group and which aroused the ire of the community was-that of Jesse Wheeler.
Jesse Wheeler was only three months old when he and four older siblings were removed for chronic neglect from their natural mother, Jacqueline Warren. Jesse was hospitalized for several months before he was placed with foster parents, Sharon and Mike Wilkens, where he remained for almost a year and a half. This was a time of healing, recovery and happiness, and he was responding fully to parental care and love when he was removed from this environment and returned to the home of his natural mother and new stepfather, Thomas Warren, on March 24, 1987.
Jesse was only two years old when this decision was made by CPS and a Harris County Juvenile Court judge in a hearing that considered the recommendations of CPS and Jesse’s court appointed attorney, but never heard the opinions of his foster parents. Jesse was returned despite full knowledge of the natural mother’s record of neglect and evidence that the stepfather had been previously indicted for rape of his four-year-old daughter (another judge dropped the indictment on the grounds that the four-year-old’s testimony could not be ruled upon because of her age).
This decision did not apply to Jesse’s four older siblings. Jesse alone was placed in the environment that resulted in the systematic physical abuse by his stepfather with the consent of his mother. The evidence proved that the stepfather had become enraged when Jesse refused to eat his pizza.
Pizza had been forced down his throat. He had been bruised over 80% of his tiny body by shaking, kicking and hitting. Jesse’s cause of death, which occurred on May 8, 1987, was listed as “blunt trauma to the head and asphyxiation.”
Jesse alone was chosen as the social experiment to determine what others already knew: that the Warren home was no place to raise a child. At two years of age, Jesse could barely talk, much less protect himself or call for help. Jesse expressed his fear and frustration to his foster parents after a visit with his mother the transition back “home”: “Boy crying . . . baby crying.”
The Children’s Protective Services caseworker compounded the error in this tragic decision to return the child by leaving Jesse in the natural mother’s home despite unmistakable signs of injury.
Bruising and black eyes were apparently evident to the caseworker two days before Jesse’s death, but no action was taken to remove him, Jacqueline and Thomas Warren were arrested and charged with first degree injury to a child. Both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In the trial to terminate the mother’s parental rights, it was found that Jesse had also been raped prior to his death.
What we have learned from Jesse’s case and others like it is the following:
It is extraordinarily difficult for the taxpaying general public to measure CPS’s performance, financial or operational, to some definite standards of accountability and this results in CPS policing themselves. As a consequence of all the above, CPS controls the intake and prioritization of child abuse cases which ensures CPS’s control of referral for investigation by legitimate law enforcement agencies. This can result in late or no referral of criminal cases and additional crimes against children. Law enforcement is also culpable because they have consented in this illegal taking over of their authority. The protective custody system (in-home and foster care) lacks proper guidelines to protect the welfare of the child. Current victims often have been previously identified as victims or candidates for future abuse.
The good news is that the outcry and concern over these problems have led to a Texas Senate investigation into CPS, an internal investigation into the reporting process by CPS, and an external audit of children’s protective services statewide by the American Humane Association and a fundamental shift in the federal funding priorities from family preservation to child protection. It is hoped that these efforts will help provide statewide and national solutions to the nightmarish system we currently possess.