Abilene ranks highest in Child Abuse –
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Regional approach raises reporting
Judge Paul Rotenberry of the 326th District Court has seen an increase in child abuse cases.
He has experienced such a surge that other courts are “catching the overflow,” he said. Weekly, other judges must stand in for him because his docket is so full.
As the family court judge, Rotenberry handles Child Protective Services cases, including those in which the agency believes a child should be removed from the home. Emergency removals, which is when CPS investigators determine a child’s environment is dire enough that there is not enough time to get a court order for removal, must be heard within 14 days of removal.
“The circumstances are so bad that they’ve got to make an immediate removal,” Rotenberry said.
Since he took the bench Jan. 1, 2015, the number of emergency removals, which usually involve multiple children, have more than doubled.
Emergency removals in Taylor County:
- 2013 — 103
- 2014 — 112
- 2015 — 230
- January-September 2016 — 191
Bolls, the county judge, said the problem is significant enough in Taylor County that the Commissioners Court plans to petition the Legislature to place a court here dedicated solely to CPS cases.
At a request by the district attorney’s office, the Commissioners Court last year added another prosecutor position to help handle the CPS caseload. Now there are three assistant district attorneys in Taylor County who prosecute CPS cases.
Rachal Blake is one of those prosecutors. She has been with the district attorney’s office since 2014.
“It probably took me five months to get caught up to the pace I’m at today because it was so backlogged,” Blake said. “I was working late every night, coming in on weekends, and it was still super backed up.”
She said the third position was “desperately needed” due to the exponential increase in CPS cases, most of which are related to methamphetamine abuse. There are so many cases, Blake said, they “crowd out the docket” in the 326th District Court. And that’s not the sole purpose of that court. It’s for all family law matters, including divorces, adoptions and custody matters.
“The big increase that I saw came around February of last year,” Blake said. “It was always busy, but we didn’t have the docket problem that we have now. A whole court set aside just for CPS could be very beneficial to the county.”
The rise in CPS cases could be a result of more abuse and neglect, or it could reflect the region’s approach to child maltreatment, said Greeley, who serves as co-chairman of the Texas Pediatrics Society committee on child abuse and neglect. He also is incoming president for the Helfer Society, the international society for physicians practicing in the field of child abuse and neglect.
“These are human beings from CPS workers to judges who don’t have truly objective scales, and they have to decide yes or no,” Greeley said. “There could be regional differences in saying yes versus saying no.”
For instance, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was accused of child abuse in 2014 after disciplining his 4-year-old son with a switch at his home in Spring. He agreed to a plea bargain that reduced his felony child abuse charges to a single charge of reckless assault, a misdemeanor, The New York Times reported.
Greeley said the incident occurred in an area of the state where the idea of whipping a child with a switch would be considered child abuse. In other parts of the state, that would have been “well-accepted parenting” that did not raise any red flags.
“That’s just an example of how regions handle the very same thing differently,” he said. “Neither is right. Neither is wrong. They’re just different.”
Meth use ‘explodes’
Rotenberry said 2016 is set to surpass the previous year’s number of emergency removals. He credits the increase to more CPS investigators in the area and “the absolute explosion of methamphetamine.”
“My guess is that 90 percent of cases filed involve meth, and probably 80 percent of those have children testing positive for meth,” he said. “If meth’s involved and the parents are taking care of the kids while they’re high, we’re going to remove those kids. And if the children are testing positive for meth, that’s a no-brainer.”
Rotenberry said he initially worried that the rise in removals was a result of the change in judges. He said he eventually dismissed that concern after seeing child after child test positive for meth.
“You could have any judge sitting here,” he said. “There’s basically no discretion.”
Angela Derrick, a former CPS supervisor who worked for the agency for seven years, said the biggest issue right now with children entering foster care is substance abuse. Derrick currently is the director of social services at Christian Homes & Family Services, an adoption and child-placement agency in Abilene.
“We had a foster parent who was interviewed a few weeks ago who said eight of their nine placements were drug-exposed children,” she said. “That seems to be a very common theme among CPS cases and the number of children who are in foster care right now.”
The drug most parents are using is methamphetamine, Derrick said. When children are exposed to that, health, behavioral and educational issues can arise, especially if the children are exposed while the mother is pregnant.
Both Rotenberry and Derrick attributed the accessibility of methamphetamine to the high number of children being removed from their homes by CPS in Taylor County. Derrick said the fact that Interstate 20 runs through town makes Abilene a big, red bull’s-eye for drug traffickers.
Plus, Rotenberry said, it’s so easy to find how to make meth and so cheap that it seems impossible to rein in its hold on users.
“When everyone can be a chef, how do you stop the cooking?” he said.
The judge said some cases involve heroin, but overwhelmingly the problem is meth. Most cases entail parents who cannot take care of their children because they are high on meth, and there is no food in the refrigerator or pantry. The children are not getting to school. They do not have what they need, and they are left home alone.
Because of how meth affects the brain, rehabilitation is extremely difficult, Rotenberry said. Some users lose all ability to be rehabbed, he said.
“We know what it does with adults. But what about these kids? What type of future do they have and what type of future does that mean for society?” he said. “These are the things that keep me up at night. How can we take care of the children that are here through no fault of their own? They’re not choosing to use meth.”