The advisory panel for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (TDFPS) approved new agency rules on Friday aimed at preventing deaths of children in CPS foster care. The Council’s action comes after the deaths of two year old Alexandria Hill and eleven month old Orien Hamilton. Both died of blunt-force head injuries suffered in foster and kinship homes. The homes were approved by child-placing agencies (CPAs) which were licensed by TDFPS. The Department licenses the 220 foster child-placing agencies that recruit, investigate, and train potential foster and kinship parents and monitor the placements once they become caregivers.
Alex Hill died in July 2013 while in a Milam County foster home run by Texas Mentor, the Department’s #3 foster care contractor. CPS removed Alex from her home when CPS became concerned about her parents’ parenting skills and drug use. Foster caregiver Sherill Small was charged with capital murder after Small showed law enforcement officers how she smashed Alex’s head against the floor. Rockdale Police Chief Thomas Harris stated that Small said she was frustrated after the child got into food and water before the Smalls woke up. Small punished Alex by making her stand in a dark room for four hours. Texas Mentor’s Arlington office was placed on probation after 114 infractions were found at 56 foster homes during the two years prior to Alex’s death.
The Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (TDPRS) objected to the release of the CPA’s home study report on the Smalls but Attorney General Greg Abbott ordered it released. The couple had been extremely candid with the CPA when they were being vetted. Small told the agency about her troubled past as an abused foster child in Missouri. She had spent almost all of her childhood in foster care. Small’s husband, Clemon Small, told the agency that he was a recovering crack cocaine addict who made money from karaoke DJ jobs. Mrs. Small had been a bus driver but had a work-related injury.
Orien Hamilton died in October 2013 when she was in an Austin foster home that had had been recently approved by Lutheran Services of the South, the Department’s #1 CPA. Orien had been removed from her home after investigators found methamphetamines in her system. Jacob Salas, a prison guard who had a history of violence and abuse, pinned Orien’s head to the floor with his knee. Orien already had broken ribs which had partially healed. Orien had a fractured skull, bleeding of the brain and detached retinas.
Salas was the foster mother’s ex-husband. The foster mother, Orien’s aunt, had told Child Protective Services that Salas did not live with her. Salas’ driver’s license listed his address as her address. The foster mother had been licensed in October and the child died less than two weeks later. Orien’s biological father claimed that he had warned Texas officials that Orien was in danger.
According to TDFPS statistics, there was an alarming increase in the number of deaths of foster children in the Department’s 2013 fiscal year. Eight foster children died in fiscal year 2013; two children died in foster care during fiscal year 2012. One child has died in foster care since the Department’s fiscal year 2014 began in September 2013.
The new rules are designed to protect children placed in foster care by more carefully assessing potential caregivers. TDFPS has not made a substantial revision to the rules since 2007. The rules were written after the Department’s Commissioner, a former judge, met with foster care providers in meetings held in the various TDFPS regions.
Existing rules require that a safety assessment be done of the foster home and this includes interviewing and doing a criminal background check on all adults in the home. The proposed new standards would require an additional interview of a family member that is not living in the home, two additional interviews of other community members, and an interview of all of the foster parents’ adult children. The rules also require that any law enforcement agency calls to the foster home for the prior two years would be investigated. Any person designated as an emergency child caregiver would have to have background checks and verification of their identity. The new rules also require CPAs to more closely monitor existing foster homes for other risk factors such as major changes in the household, job losses, marriages, divorces, or the addition of any household members, as well as frequent visitors.
Judge John Specia, TDFPS Commissioner stated that “[o]ur focus is ensuring that we know who is in these homes and who may be around these children that could pose an unacceptable risk. These children deserve complete protection and safety.” The rules do not take effect until September of 2014 after there is time for public comment. The rules will apply only to new foster homes.
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