New Texas Law Gives CASA Electronic Access to DFPS Case Files

On September 1, 2013, HB 1227/SB 963 went into effect. This new law requires that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) allow the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) assigned to an individual case to have electronic access to that DFPS case file. In addition, CASA can upload documents to the DFPS case file. San Antonio CASA says that the primary purpose for this new law is to create a way for CASA and DFPS to share information more efficiently and effectively.

Child Advocates, Inc., Harris County’s CASA program, says that it is important for CASA volunteers to be able to get information on the children they are appointed to in a timely manner. In addition, this new law is beneficial to DFPS, because CASA volunteers can easily share information vital to the case and the children’s wellbeing with DFPS caseworkers and supervisors. Child Advocates, Inc. provided this real life example to illustrate this:

“The following is an example of a case where the Child Advocate volunteer played an integral role in gathering information necessary to prepare for trial. The advocacy coordinator was able to bring about a critical change in the initial investigation. It became apparent the change was needed because of the information gathered by the volunteer.

This family is composed of a mother and her six minor children. The mother’s minor children have been removed from her home for the third time because of her drug use. The children were in foster care for approximately a year before they were returned home, however, after a few months after the children were placed at home, the mother tested positive for drugs again. After the children came into care again, the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) began working with the family. This included visiting with extended family members (which the caseworker had never met with). It was through these visits that the GAL discovered that the mother had been scapegoating (abusing only one of her children) during the time the children had been returned to her.

According to family members, the mother had expressed many times that she did not love this child and that she had never bonded with him. These family members had seen bruises on the child and the mother had told them that she had inflicted these injuries on the child. There had been a referral made to DFPS, but the alleged abuse had been ruled out. The mother had even made references to wanting to kill the child.

Once the advocacy coordinator was made aware of the allegations the relatives were making, she made a call to the doctor that saw the child upon his return into DFPS custody. The child’s physical condition was consistent with what the relatives were reporting.  He had tie marks around his wrists, bruises on his body, vitamin D deficiency, and was very malnourished. One of the relatives had seen the child tied at the ankles.

Since the children came back into care because of the mother’s drug abuse, the issue of this child’s physical abuse was being overlooked. The volunteers and advocacy coordinator were concerned that if the mother completed her drug treatment the children would be returned to her without the physical abuse being validated. This would likely result in the child being physically abused and neglected again. By anticipating this, the advocacy coordinator was able to use the information received by the volunteers to persuade DFPS to look back at the investigation that led to the children’s removal. Only the drug abuse was mentioned. The advocacy coordinator was able to contact supervisors and directors within DFPS in order to have physical abuse added as an allegation and subsequently a finding that the mother did abuse the child.

This result took weeks to accomplish. This information and validation of abuse will be critical at trial in order to make sure the children are not returned to this mother if she does not make the changes necessary to prevent the children from being abused again. Addressing only the drug abuse will not be enough.

This would not have occurred without Child Advocates’ involvement in the case.  Child Advocates’ volunteers were able to make phone calls, meet with families, and eventually uncover this information that would have remained hidden. This may eventually save the life of this child if he is not returned to his mother.”

Texas State Representative Dawnna Dukes supports the new law, because

“CASA volunteers have proven to be significant partners with the state in ensuring our most vulnerable children are safe and secure by prioritizing their well-being. No longer will CASA have to expend time-consuming visits to child protective services offices to review paper files. By providing electronic access to certain case files we are able to welcome a more efficient and effective system. This system provides the necessary tools for caseworkers to have the most up to date and accurate information; ensuring that every child’s best interest will be represented by his or her advocate.”

This requirement, though, is dependent on DFPS having the available financial resources to develop and implement the necessary internet application that would give CASA electronic access to DFPS records. The bill authorizes DFPS to use money appropriated to DFPS and money received as a gift, grant, or donation to pay for the costs of developing and maintaining the Internet application and authorizes DFPS to solicit and accept gifts, grants, and donations for such purposes.

Hopefully, noting the potential benefits for all parties involved, DFPS bureaucrats and the Texas legislature will allocate the necessary funds to implementing this new law.

For more information about Child Advocates, Inc., click here: http://www.childadvocates.org/

Photo courtesy of Texas CASA

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Monday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Appeals Court Backs Coaches in Disclosure of Students Sexual Orientation, Education Week

A federal appeals court has ruled that two Texas high school softball coaches are immune from a student’s privacy lawsuit because there was no clearly established law barring school officials from discussing a student’s private matters, including her sexual orientation, with the student’s parent.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, comes in the case of a mother who sued the Kilgore Independent School District and various officials, alleging that the two softball coaches confronted her 16-year-old daughter about whether she was a lesbian and then “outed” her during a meeting with the parent

Texas Sentences for 17 Year-old Murderers Fine as They Are: No Need for Special Session Call, Grits for Breakfast

So far, Gov. Perry has resisted adding anything to the special session call besides redistricting and Grits’ must admit I’m grateful. Unless he surprises me and put warrants for cell-phone location data on the list (which he should), not much good can come of any of the criminal-justice topics the Governor is most likely to add to a special session which some, like Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, would like to fill with right-wing red meat.

One surprising omission so far has been the failure of the 83rd Legislature to establish a legal punishment for 17-year old capital offenders. Texas treats them as adults but the US Supreme Court considers them juveniles. So SCOTUS rulings banning the death penalty and life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles have left Texas with no legal punishments on the books for 17-year olds charged with capital murder. They can still be charged with “regular” murder, which could get them a sentence of up to 99-life, but with the eventual possibility of parole

Data: Juvenile Detentions Down, The Tribune-Democrat

HARRISBURG — The number of accused juvenile delinquents taken from their homes by court order dropped more than 29 percent from 2007 to 2011, government data shows.

While the trends are encouraging, advocates note that Pennsylvania had plenty of ground to make up.

Through 2010, the most recent year in which national data is available, Pennsylvania had the highest rate of juveniles in out-of-home detention, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice. And while most other big states had seen the number of juveniles placed in out-of-home detention decrease over the decade leading up to 2010, the number went up in Pennsylvania.

What has Texas done lately to stop school bullying?

A few weeks ago, the topic of school bullying seemed to have dropped off the radar of the mainstream media. After a flurry of teen suicides in the last few years focused the nation’s attention on state anti-bullying efforts, the spotlight was eventually pushed away. But last month’s tragic suicide of teenager Jamey Rodemeyer has refocused national attention on bullying. Jamey Rodemeyer The Washington Post provides background on Jamey and the events leading up to his death. Jamey, a 14-year-old New York teenager, struggled with his sexual identity. His parents were supportive and he saw a social worker and therapist. But Jamey was regularly bullied and teased at school. So, Jamey sought support on the Internet. In May, he posted an “It Gets Better” Youtube video, expressing support for others in his situation. Jamey also started a blog on the website Tumblr to express his feelings. But the bullying continued. Jamey wrote:

“No one in my school cares about preventing suicide, while you’re the ones calling me [gay slur] and tearing me down,” he wrote on Sept. 8. He said the next day: “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. … What do I have to do so people will listen to me?”

Jamey’s death raises serious questions about the impact, both positive and negative, that social media has on children. Although Jamey received some support in response to his Youtube video, he also received some horrendously obscene comments. One of the comments Jamey received on Formspring, a social tool that allows users to give and receive anonymous feedback, said:

“I wouldn’t care if you died. No one would. So just do it…It would make everyone WAY more happier!”

Jamey’s parents and others (including Lady Gaga) are determined to make sure that other families won’t suffer Jamey’s fate by encouraging lawmakers to strengthen anti-bullying efforts. What did Texas lawmakers accomplish during the legislative session this Spring? On June 17, Governor Perry signed HB 1942. The four main effects of the bill are below (adapted from the House Research Organization’s bill summary):

  1. Bullying defined. The bill defines bullying as engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurred on school property, at a school-sponsored event or school-related activity, or on a vehicle operated by the district. To be considered bullying, the behavior would have to have the effect of physically harming the student, damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or of damage to the student’s property. The behavior would have to be severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that it created an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for the student, exploited an imbalance of power between the student perpetrator and the student victim, and interfered with a student’s education or substantially disrupted the operation of a school.
  2. Policies and procedures to handle and prevent bullying. The board of trustees of each school district is required to adopt a policy on bullying, including any necessary procedures, that (A) prohibits the bullying of a student; (B) prohibits retaliation against any person who in good faith provided information on an incident of bullying, including a victim or witness; (C) establishes a procedure to notify a parent or guardian of the victim and the bully within a reasonable amount of time after the incident; (D) sets out the available counseling options for a student who was a victim of or a witness to bullying or who engaged in bullying; and (E) establishes procedures for reporting an incident of bullying, investigating a reported incident of bullying, and determining whether the reported incident of bullying occurred.
  3. Transferring a student who engages in bullying. The bill allows the school district’s board of trustees or its designee to transfer a student engaging in bullying to another classroom or campus. The transfer of a student receiving special education services could be made only by an admission, review, and dismissal (ARD) committee.
  4. Essential knowledge and skills. The bill requires that the state’s health curriculum include evidence-based practices that effectively addresses awareness, prevention, identification, and resolution of and intervention in bullying and harassment.

The law isn’t perfect, but it is a start. And until states do make tougher laws, parents will continue to be forced to utilize less desirable, backward-looking legal strategies.