by Dave Fehling / 11 News
Posted on July 15, 2010 at 8:55 PM
Updated Thursday, Jul 15 at 11:02 PM
HOUSTON — The horrific fatal abuse case of Emma Thompson resulted in the conviction of her mother this week in Harris County Criminal Court. But the case raises serious questions about the competency of the state agency that had previously investigated allegations of abuse of Emma but had taken no action.
An internal review of Texas Child Protective Services’ (CPS) regional office in Houston highlighted startling deficiencies in how investigations are performed.
Last summer, Emma Thompson arrived already dead at an emergency room in The Woodlands. Her skull was fractured, as were her ribs. There were signs of rape.
In court this week, a jury convicted her mother, Abigail Young, and sentenced her to 20 years in prison for not protecting Emma from Young’s boyfriend, Lucas Coe. He faces trial later this year on charges of super aggravated assault.
At the time of Emma’s death, CPS was also involved in two other Houston-area cases where it had investigated families for alleged abuse, but where – nonetheless — two children later died.
The tragic and heartbreaking cases led to a new round of criticism of CPS. In response, CPS investigated its Houston regional office and last December, issued a report. The report leaves little doubt as to why those cases could have fallen through the cracks.
Among the findings, the internal review said Houston caseworkers:
-Failed to assess the risk to children in half the abuse cases they investigated, leaving children “potentially unsafe”
-Failed to check CPS’s own records to see if a family had a prior history of abuse.
-Failed to do follow-up to make sure families were attending the counseling they were supposed to
At the Texas Department of Protective Services, the buck stops with Commissioner Anne Heilgenstein.
In Austin, she told 11News:”Yes, we will improve. However, I’m not going to mislead you into thinking we can prevent every child death. We can’t.”
A major problem, which was cited by Heilgenstein and found in the review of the Houston office, was the overwhelming caseload faced by investigators — a caseload that Heilgenstein said has now shot up over 50 percent in just the past year.
That has meant each of the approximately 287 Houston-based investigators have just hours to do each case.
“They’re getting about 25 new investigations a month,” said Estella Ogluin, spokesperson for the Houston CPS office. She said that means less than a day to investigate each new case.
In the case of Emma Thompson, CPS investigators did manage to interview the mother. But CPS said she never told them a thing about her boyfriend. CPS had previously investigated him in an unrelated child abuse case.
“And that certainly would have changed our response had we had that information,” said Heilgenstein.
But shouldn’t the investigators have done more than take the mother at her word?
“Could we have knocked on neighbors’ doors perhaps, and said do you know of anyone coming and going in this house other than the mother and her children,” asked Heilgenstein. The answer is, apparently investigators did not.
An overwhelming caseload may have been a factor last year when the investigation took place. Heilgenstein said it is certainly factor now.
“Can we sustain the current caseloads? No, we can’t,” Heilgenstein said.
“It’s going to mean they’re spending less time on each case, we don’t want that to happen,” said State Representative Ana Hernandez, a Democrat from Houston.
Last session, the state Legislature funded more CPS investigators. Hernandez said lawmakers will have no choice but to do it again when they meet next January.
“We want to reduce the caseload for all the caseworkers,” said Hernandez, who serves on the House committee overseeing CPS.
Her counterpart on a state Senate committee, Republican Joan Huffman of Southside Place, did not call for more funding in a statement to 11News:
“There is no excuse for these tragedies and our focus should always be on a child’s safety. Clearly, the report shows breakdowns within CPS policy and that communication needs to be streamlined to ensure that children are removed from a dangerous environment. We will continue to monitor CPS’ actions in response to the recommendations set forth in this review.”
With the state facing a huge budgetary shortfall, more funding is far from certain. The need for thorough investigations, however, is clear. Children like Emma Thompson are the tragic proof of that.