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Questions Over Parents’ Constitutional Rights Suppressed in Texas CPS Reform Hearing

Two Texas House hearings have been held to address nightmares with the Texas Child Protective Services agency. During one of those hearings, a state representative who was chairman of the committee, angrily shut-out a discussion of the due process and other constitutional rights of parents.

Members of the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Humans Services held hearings in Austin on Tuesday. Last Thursday, the Texas House Committee on County Affairs held one of their regional hearings in Houston. The hearings are being held to address challenges and make reforms at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (TDFPS). TDFPS has come under fire from the judiciary and the public.

In December 2014, a class action lawsuit was filed against CPS. As reported by Breitbart Texas, the lawsuit was filed by a New York advocacy group called Children’s Rights. About 12,000 children who were in long-term care in Texas were included in the class action suit. The advocacy group successfully sought and received a scathing order from a federal district judge.

Judge Janis Graham Jack ordered the State of Texas to enact reforms. In so doing, the judge wrote an opinion that said that the long-term foster care system was improperly run. She also called it a place “where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm,” as reported by the Dallas Morning News in December 2015. The judge noted that the DFPS and Judge Specia had “the best intentions” but the system is underfunded. She called the long-term foster care system in the state “broken.” Judge Specia retired earlier this year after a long and distinguished service in family law. He announced on March 6 that he was retiring after thirty years of public service.

Today, new DFPS Commissioner Hank Whitman submitted some proposals, at the request of Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Whitman, a former Texas Rangers Chief, was appointed to the position by the governor in April. He also appointed a 17-year CPS veteran, Kristene Blackstone to serve as assistant commissioner, Breitbart Texas reported.

Whitman’s letter includes ten proposals to improve the Child Protective Services agency (CPS) and the child welfare system in the Lone Star State. These suggestions are designed to address problems with the agency. According to a statement received by Breitbart Texas from the Governor’s office, the solutions are designed “to strengthen capacity, efficiency, and accountability at the agency.”

The following ten proposals are contained within the new Commissioner’s letter (displayed below):

  1. Institute a new culture of accountability throughout CPS;
  2. Require CPS regional directors to re-apply for their jobs;
  3. Charge system with taking special care of high-needs children in CPS care;
  4. Continue to implement CPS Transformation overhaul launched in 2014;
  5. Partner with the Texas Department of Public Safety to develop a team of information analysts to gather information about households for caseworkers;
  6. Ensure all CPS Special Investigators receive forensic training by September 2016;
  7. Ramp up efforts to bring Texas’ faith-based community into the child welfare tent;
  8. Strengthen the state’s investment in performance-based outcomes for foster care;
  9. Maintain sharp focus on combating human trafficking and devote special services to trafficking victims; and
  10. Provide young parents with the tools and resources to build safe, healthy households.

At the time of Whitman’s appointment, the Texas Governor said that “The status quo at CPS is unacceptable. Our children are too important to suffer through the challenges they’ve faced. I’ve insisted on overhauling a broken system.” Abbott added, “I applaud the leadership changes that will provide a new direction and focus that puts protecting children first.”

Today the governor emphatically stated that “Upon appointing Commissioner Whitman to lead DFPS, [I] made clear the status quo at CPS is unacceptable and charged new leadership with providing a new direction and focus that puts protecting Texas children first.”

In both hearings, representatives discussed what reforms are needed, and whether retired police officers and teachers should be considered for employment positions at the agency.  Republican Rep. Dustin Burrows from Lubbock asked about the latter, as well as about the role that faith based organizations could play in fixing the embattled foster care system.

On Thursday, Garnet Coleman, a Democrat representative from Houston who serves as chair of the Texas House County Affairs Committee, would not allow Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) to ask child protective services representatives who were testifying for Harris County, about the constitutional and due process rights of parents when they are caught up in the system.

Stickland told Breitbart Texas, “While seeking to reform Child Protective Services, we need to be careful that those that are in the mess are not part of fixing it.” As to Rep. Coleman’s shutting Rep. Stickland down in asking questions, Stickland added, “I am convinced that the constitutional rights of parents do matter,” he emphasized. “It must be part of the process.”

Tim Lambert, head of the Texas Home School Coalition Association, told Breitbart Texas, “Parents have a fundamental constitutional right to direct the care, control, and upbringing of their children, and this very much comes into consideration when parents are under CPS investigation.” He explained, “CPS caseworkers and employees seem to think that parents have no rights. A parent or parents being investigated for abuse or neglect are frequently treated as if they have less due process rights than a criminal in the court system.” He said, “I think it is important for any decision where the government can have an impact on the relationship between a parent and a child for there to be the freedom of a robust discussion of the constitutional rights of parents as it relates to their children.”

“The U. S. Supreme Court has made it very clear that parents have constitutional rights related to their children,” Jonathan Saenz president of Texas Values told Breitbart Texas. “I believe constituents would be very concerned if a state official tried to silence or censor discussion about parental rights when making decision about CPS or accountability for the government. Hostility toward parents or the religious faith of parents by elected officials is a growing concern and the public deserves to hear more about this issue, not less.”

Breitbart Texas has reported extensively about the abuses within the CPS system, and of the deaths of children in their care. In addition to these horrors, the agency’s critics say that more caseworkers should be investigated for their constitutional overreaches with parents, custodians, and guardians.

As reported by Breitbart Texas, a CPS worker was found guilty of official oppression in September 2015. Rebekah Ross Thonginh, a CPS worker, is one of three individuals who were charged in connection with a CPS investigation of a case involving a special needs teenager who was murdered in 2012. Thonginh, Natalie Ausbie Reynolds, and Laura Ard were arrested in September of 2013 and were charged with official oppression and tampering with evidence.

In 2014, a Texas judge ordered the removal of a YouTube video which went viral after it was highlighted in an article by Breitbart Texas. It had hundreds of thousands of views and shares. As reported by Breitbart Texas, Judge Keith Dean ordered the removal of the video which was produced by a 13-year-old boy who had been in the foster care system. It exposed the sexual and physical abuse that he and his brother and family say they endured. The video, obtained from someone outside of the family, also discusses the 377-day nightmare suffered by him and his six siblings after they were ripped from their family and placed in four different foster care facilities out of their home county. The mother told Breitbart Texas at the time “they are trying to rake this abuse under the rug.” The children have been returned to their family.

This article originally referred to Rep. Dustin Burrows by the first name, Dennis. It has since been updated.

Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She has served as a prosecutor and associate judge in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2.

Commissioner Hank Whitman Letter Regarding CPS Reforms

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