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:

Photo courtesy of Texas CASA


2013 Texas Legislative Update: Administrators of Institutions of Higher Education Liable for Failure to Report Child Abuse – A Response to the Penn State Sandusky Scandal that Could Punish Innocent Texas Students

Texas Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) has filed HB 443 in response to the Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, in case something similar happens at a Texas university.  HB 443 creates a civil penalty of $1 million on the school if an administrator at an institute of higher education fails to report an incident of physical or mental abuse or neglect of a child on the institution’s property or at an event sponsored by the institution.

Texas Family Code Section 261.101 already requires that any person “having cause to believe a child’s physical or mental health or welfare has been adversely affected by abuse or neglect by any person shall immediately” report what they know to the appropriate authorities, generally any state or local law enforcement agency or the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), per Tex. Fam. Code Section 261.103.  In addition, under Tex. Fam. Code Sec. 261.109 failure to report child abuse is punishable by a Class A misdemeanor or a state jail felony if the child had mental retardation lived in a state living center or ICF-IID (formerly ICF-MR) and the person knew the child suffered serious bodily injury.

HB 443 does not create personal liability or new criminal responsibility for administrators of institutions of higher education that fail to report child abuse or neglect.  However, HB 443 does not limit the failure to report child abuse law so administrators in a Sandusky-like cover up could still face Class A misdemeanor charges, just like everyone else.  For example, in Texas, Jerry Sandusky’s wife, Dottie, could be charged for failure to report the abuse if she knew about what her husband was doing and did not act.  Considering the Sanduskys’ own adopted son, Matt Sandusky, has come out saying he too was abused, it is difficult to believe Mrs. Sandusky was completely unaware, although it is possible.

In essence, HB 443 would create a civil liability that would make administrators in the same shoes as Penn State’s Graham Spanier, University President; Gary Schultz, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business (oversaw Penn State police); and Tim Curley, Athletic Director think twice about covering up child abuse on their campuses.  This liability would not be affected by the failure to report of the Joe Paternos, Head Football Coach; Mike McQuearys, former Graduate Assistant turned Assistant Coach; or Jim Calhouns, janitor, of Texas universities.

At this time, HB 443 has been referred to the House Committee on Higher Education.  It is a long way from becoming a law.  Although this law would provide sufficient incentive for administrators to not cover up child abuse on campuses, the $1 million fine would, realistically, be passed on to innocent students.  Students who have nothing to do with the child abuse could see their tuition bills increase or some campus services decrease in order to pay the fine.  In many ways, this fine is like the current Penn State football team paying a $60 million fine and having a 4 year post-season bowl games ban based on the crimes of past generations they had nothing to do with.

For this reason, I am doubtful the deterrent benefit of HB 443 will outweigh the unnecessary punishment of innocent students if applied to Texas universities.  Unfortunately, a bill creating personal liability for administrators who failed to act when abuse happened on their campuses would never pass.  Such a law would definitely create a reason to report every child abuse incident on campuses in a timely manner.