Baby Justice now has the attention of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Justice Hull was just two months old when she died in January, allegedly drowned at the hands of a 14-year-old teenager taking care of her. She is one of three children to die since the start of the year while under the supervision of Child Protective Services. Nine children died last year.
The deaths were cited in a letter sent this week to former Judge John Specia, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. In it, the governor called for a "comprehensive reform of our state's struggling foster care and child protection systems."
He asked for $40 million more in new funding for the chronically underfunded and understaffed department, and increased oversight of child safety placement – situations when children are placed with friends or relatives.
"Abuse and neglect of our most vulnerable Texans – our children – is intolerable, and it is especially intolerable when it happens to the a child under the care umbrella of the state of Texas," the governor wrote.
Many of the changes sought by Abbott are problems that surfaced in an Office of Child Safety report into Justice's death released earlier this month.
Justice had been placed with a family friend shortly after birth. Twice in the weeks leading up to Justice's January death, the family friend asked a CPS caseworker for daycare assistance. The caseworker denied the requests, saying that help could not be provided because the case was due to be closed.
The report revealed other problems, including the failure of caseworkers to meet timelines for face-to-face contacts and failing to offer services to the infant's mother while she was pregnant, even though they knew she had admitted to substance abuse, had a history of domestic violence and untreated mental health issues.
In the letter, the governor called for enforcing mandatory face-to-face visits, better screening of those with whom children are placed, prohibiting the closing of a child safety placement case, such as Justice's, without having "wrap around" services in place. He also called for a review of all child fatalities and critical injuries resulting in hospitalization.
The governor set a deadline of April 15 for a progress report.
Specia said in a statement that he looks "forward to working with him and with legislators to strengthen protections and ensure safety for children in families who are involved with Child Protective Services."
Dimple Patel of Tex Protects knows some of the caseworkers involved in Justice's case and says it's been devastating for them.
"Having worked for nine years in the field.., there's nothing more tragic than when a child dies on CPS' watch," Patel said.
The Office of Child Safety, which was recently created by Specia as part of a CPS reform effort, is also conducting investigations on two other child deaths involving CPS.
Codrick McCall, 4, had been placed with a friend of the family when he found a gun and accidentally shot himself in Houston on March 1. Audrey Torres, 3, died in a March 8 alcohol-related car crash in Amarillo while her family was being investigated and monitored by CPS at the time.
"There's far too many children that are dying," said J.J. Smith, founder of Rockwall-based Americans Ending Abuse. "There's far too many children that are being injured."
He says while many of the things that Abbott is calling for should already have been in place, he's thrilled the governor has decided to take on the issue of child safety.
Smith says his group previously worked with Abbott to pass a 2011 law prohibiting parents and guardians from showing pornography to their children.
"Based on personal experience when we had this law passed in 2011, he really cared," Smith said.
Abbot's letter also called for specific changes with foster care, including improving performance evaluation and re-certification process for foster care contractors and establishing caseworker protocols to educate foster children on how to report abuse and neglect.
Carol Cook knows well the failings of CPS and the foster care system. She adopted 15-year-old Ke'onte after seeing him on News 8's Wednesday's Child.
While in foster care, he was placed in a psychiatric hospital three times and overmedicated, she said. She says within weeks of Ke'onte coming to live with them, he was off the medications. She says he's now doing well in school and an active, heavy teen-ager.
"If we actually follow through with them, I think it would be really great," Cook said. "I know way too many children that have been into the system my son included that just kind of fell through the cracks."
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