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Abuse investigations on the rise

Odessa American - 9/16/2022

Sep. 16—After dipping during the first year of the pandemic, the number of child abuse investigations rose last year, resulting in more children being removed from their homes. Due to a severe shortage of foster parents, 67% of Midland/Ector county children are now living outside the county.

According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the number of child abuse investigations in Ector County dipped from nearly 1,200 in 2019 to 1,060 in 2020 and then rose to 1,246 last year.

The number of investigations in Midland County rose from 803 in 2019 to 922 in 2020 and then rose even higher, to 940 last year.

Roughly 300 Midland/Ector county children are in foster care at any given time, but because there are only 63 licensed foster homes in the two counties, 200 of those children are living with relatives or foster parents hundreds of miles from home, according to the state.

As the associate judge of the Child Protection Court of West Texas, Tracey Scown is the judge who ultimately decides if parents can be reunited with their children after successfully completing a case plan created by Child Protective Services. She is also responsible for the well-being of the children while they are in the child welfare system.

According to CPS, there are 45 caseworkers overseeing Ector County parents and 14 caseworkers in Midland.

Typically parents have up to a year to complete their case plan, which often includes substance abuse counseling, parenting classes, mental health treatment and family counseling. Parents who fail can have their parental rights terminated and their children can be put up for adoption.

Statistics obtained from the DFPS through a Texas Public Information Act request show that during 2021, 682 Midland/Ector county children exited DFPS' legal custody and of those, 34% or 233 were reunited with their families. The statewide average was just under 27%.

Statistics show there's a 4% recidivism rate in both Midland/Ector counties and statewide, meaning children are removed from their parents' home again.

While CPS often tries to work with parents before removing children from their home, they aren't always successful, Scown said. There are also cases in which there's been a death or the abuse and neglect is so severe, the children are removed immediately.

According to DPS records, there were two abuse/neglect-related deaths in Midland/Ector counties FY2021. There were four in FY2019 and five in FY2020.

Leaving home

No matter the circumstance, it's emotionally devastating for the children and even more traumatic when they have to leave the area, Scown said.

"When you think about it, it's like we ask them to write down your favorite person in the world, write down your favorite animals, your favorite pet, write down your favorite toy, write down your favorite room. Write down your favorite place to go and then ask them which one they want to keep," Scown said. "We tell them you get to stay with this person, but you're gonna lose your school and you're gonna lose your toys and you're gonna lose all your friends or you can have your friend, but you're going to lose this, you're gonna lose this and you're gonna lose this."

The negative impact on their schooling is also dramatic, she said. Since every school prepares for the Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness their own way, students can find themselves falling behind quickly.

Adults may understand and rationalize why these things are happening, but children certainly can't, Scown said.

Being placed outside of the county also poses a huge problem when parents are trying to maintain a bond with their children and practicing new parenting and coping skills, she said.

"They're only able to speak with their kids on the phone or virtually and that's really tough when you have a baby or a 3-year-old who doesn't want to sit there and look at a computer and talk to mom or dad through a computer," Scown said.

Some might think that would give parents an added incentive to work harder, but it just ends up adding to their frustration level, the judge said.

Finding foster families for these children is difficult for a number of reasons, she said. While CPS would prefer to place children with family members, many folks have left their extended families behind in other states to work in the oilfields.

In addition, some family members may not be willing to take on the responsibility of more children, especially if there are a large number of siblings. There are also times when family members simply aren't appropriate placements because of their own legal or substance abuse issues, Scown said.

Splitting up siblings comes with its own set of problems, she said.

"Unfortunately, especially in cases of neglect, the eldest child has become the mother figure, the parent or the parent figure, for the younger children," Scown said. "We don't want that older child to have to continue to do that, but when we have to separate them, they often feel like they're losing their identity, so that's very difficult as well."

Per capita, CPS investigates more child abuse cases in Ector County than Midland County, 22.2% per 1,000 residents compared to 17.2%, DFPS statistics show.

"While we don't speculate on these statistical differences between communities, we do understand that child abuse/neglect occurs where families struggle with issues such as poverty, substance abuse and mental health issues," said DFPS spokesman Paul Zimmerman.

Zimmerman said there are 24 investigators in Ector County and 11 in Midland.

According to CPS statistics, the vast majority of allegations pertain to neglect. Most involve a failure to supervise children, but there's also physical and medical neglect. Physical and sexual abuse round out the top three reasons parents are investigated.

The judge said substance abuse is a huge issue, particularly methamphetamine. Some start out using stimulants to stay awake at work and find themselves addicted. Others start out using drugs recreationally.

"You have parents that think it's OK to use drugs as long as they're not around their child. They don't realize that once they do use the drug they don't have the judgment to not go around their child," Scown said.

Many times, the parents were abused themselves, she said.

The goal

Under Texas law, those in the child welfare system are required to help parents reunite with their children and Scown said families in Ector County are fortunate in that there are several agencies that offer a wide range of services.

Parents can overcome their addictions, heal and become the parents their children need, if they work hard and take advantage of the services offered, she said.

"It's amazing that we have such good services," Scown said. "We don't give a lot of credit, and I spend a lot of my time actually going out in the community, finding out what's available that may or may not be actually contracted with DFPS. Because DFPS has contracts and that's who they can pay for services through. But we actually have a lot of other services available in the community, that are available to parents. They might have to pay or they have sliding scales or there are actually free resources for people."

The Permian Basin Regional Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse is just one such agency, Scown said.

Scown attempts to meet with the parents, children, foster parents, case managers and Court Appointed Special Advocates at least once every three months.

"The legislature has set up a lot of checkpoints during the case, just to make sure everybody's doing what they're supposed to do to get toward the end of the case. So CPS is providing the services. Are the parents doing the services? If they're not, why not? Is the child getting medical, dental? If you add that to the caseload of the district judges, it's overwhelming. So CPC judges were set up to take care of those details along the way," Scown said.

Child Protection Court judges receive specialized training, she said.

"Our training is very specific toward trauma based care, toward education, towards services, toward drug addiction, domestic violence, all of this that we see in our court. Hopefully that gives CPC judges insight in how to direct the courtroom," Scown said.

If at all possible, Scown tries to see families more frequently than every three months.

"We recognize that the faster a child is in a permanent place, the better for the child. This system is set up to get them to a permanent place as quickly as possible, whether that be returned home safely or to an adoptive placement. Children that stay in foster care for a long time are at much higher risk," Scown said.


According to the Centers for Disease Control, child abuse and neglect can have long-term impacts on children that require early intervention. These children are at increased risk of experiencing future violence victimization and perpetration and substance abuse.

Chronic abuse can result in changes in their brain development and increase their chances of developing PTSD and learning, attention and memory difficulties. It can also have a lifelong impact of children's immune and metabolic systems, according to the CDC.

Studies have also shown that abuse and neglected children can trigger the part of their brains that control the fight, flight or freeze response, which makes it harder for them to control their emotions.

According to experts, however, children can overcome adverse childhood experiences if they receive therapy and are surrounded by caring adults who support their needs.

While the hearings are often difficult for all involved, Scown said she tries to be encouraging and nonjudgmental.

"Some of the training I've had is that these parents have reached the point they've reached because they've been told again and again and again that there's something wrong with them, that they're not good, that they're bad, so I want to encourage positive behavior and healing," Scown said.

While the area has a great number of resources for families, Scown said she is always on the hunt for more because sometimes the CPS-approved agencies have waiting lists or schedules that don't mesh with the parents'.

"I don't require that they go specifically to the ones that are paid by CPS as long as we're meeting the goal," Scown said.

Many of the agencies she finds operate on a sliding fee schedule, she said.

Zimmerman said the Permian Basin area is "doing well" with available parenting classes and pediatricians.

"There is a short waiting list for drug rehabilitation services while our biggest need is for more trauma-informed therapists for children/families," Zimmerman said.

No matter what has taken place before, most children want to go home, Scown said.

"When you look at how much the child loves the parent, then you can start seeing how having a healthy parent is really the best thing. If we can get that parent healthy, that's really the best thing. But I want to see everybody healthy, regardless," Scown said. "I always say, 'I'm not just doing this because I want your family reunified. I want you to have a better life."

What's the best part of her job?

"Seeing people heal, seeing families in a better place, seeing children in a better place, whether that is back with their parent, or in a new place," Scown said.

Scown often visits community groups to recruit potential foster families. While she understands many fear becoming too attached to the children, she puts it this way:

"If you found a child on the beach and didn't know where its parent was, but it needed taken care of and you took care of it for six months and then you found out its mom had fallen and almost drowned and been in the hospital for six months, but is healed now and ready to have her child come home, would you not want her to have her child back?"


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