It is a system that's designed to protect children.

It often fails to do so.

The latest failure came with last month’s death of Leiliana Wright, a four-year-old Grand Prairie girl who was beaten, bound and force-fed after a litany of missteps by those assigned to protect her.

Leiliana Wright
Leiliana Wright

The catastrophic failure in Leiliana’s case was on the minds of legislators Wednesday as they sought answers from outgoing Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia in the ornate Senate Chamber, a world away from where little Leiliana suffered and died.

“We missed opportunities; that’s the difficult part,” Specia said, declining to speak further because of the ongoing investigation.

The state of that entire child protection system was the subject of a day-long hearing in Austin before the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee. In recent years, legislators have increased the budget of the foster care and CPS systems by more than half a billion dollars. Still, the problems of high turnover and unmanageable caseloads remain a persistent problem... to the clear frustration of state lawmakers.

Dallas County has been at the epicenter of the most recent crisis for CPS. The turnover rate surged to 56 percent, double what it had been two years before.

That, in turn, caused a spike in caseloads.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we had the same crisis in Houston,” said Madeline McClure, CEO of Dallas-based TexProtects. "Before that it was the same crisis in San Antonio, and before that we had the same crisis in Travis. It’s like a moving crisis. This is a perpetual, systematic problem that goes beyond Dallas County right now.”

According to the most recently available statistics, 40 percent of the CPS cases in Dallas County were delinquent in February, meaning they’d been open for 60 days or more. That typically means there are few or no visits to the children being monitored.

By comparison, the delinquency rate was 17 percent in February 2014.

“In some ways, the demands on the workers keep growing, but the number of workers don’t,” Specia said. “Frustrated workers leave. If you can’t go home and sleep at night because you’re worried about people on your caseload, then you find something else to do.”

As turnover rose and caseloads began spiking in Dallas County, CPS dispatched eight master investigators and three master investigation supervisors to help. Currently, 24 master investigators and supervisors are assigned to Dallas County, said local CPS spokeswoman Marissa Gonzales.

During the last weekend in February, 65 CPS staff came to Dallas from across the state to help with investigations, she added.

“Since that time, other regions have continued to send in 10 staff a week to assist with working and closing cases,” Gonzales said. “So at any given time right now, there are 10 additional staff in Dallas County helping with cases.”

The current caseload for a CPS caseworker is 27 in Dallas County -- more than double what child welfare advocates recommend.

Consider what happened to Leiliana Wright. The caseworker assigned to her was juggling 70 cases at the time.

In the month before she died, Leilliana had been seen by a special investigator who witnessed that she had bruises on her face. He told the caseworker, but nothing was done to remove the child from the home before she died a horrific death.

According to court documents, Leiliana was beaten with a belt and a stick of bamboo after drinking her 18-month-old brother’s juice. She was bound at the wrists and was unable to sit down. Meanwhile, her mother and her boyfriend were using heroin, the records say.

The pair are now in jail facing charges in connection with Leiliana’s death.

“Leiliana Wright is the tragedy of all these systems not working together,” McClure said. “That case is probably one of those that nobody can forget, and I hope it burns into every single person’s consciousness.”

The Office of Child Safety, which Commissioner Specia created, is currently reviewing the circumstances surrounding Leiliana’s death.

“We review every child fatality, tear it apart completely, and look at the decisions made in it," he said. "We try to learn from that and make better decisions in the next case.”

Specia told legislators that a workload study is currently underway to determine what the appropriate caseloads should be for caseworkers. At this point, he said it’s a guess to know what that number should be – an admission that astonished some of the lawmakers.

“I’m stunned that we do not know how long it takes to handle the average case,” said state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano). “Obviously, if it takes a hundred hours to do a case... and there’s 2,000 work-hours in a year... and we ask someone to do 30 cases in a year... they’re not going to be able to do it, and they’re going to quit.”

Studies have shown that CPS caseworkers spent just 26 percent of their time with children. The rest of their hours are spent in court, on the road, dealing with the agency’s antiquated computer system, or doing other tasks.

Raising abysmally low starting salaries, everyone seemed to agree, has to be part of the solution -- particularly given that it takes eight months and costs about $54,000 to train a worker. The salary for a CPS investigator is nearly $39,000, including a monthly stipend. Other types of CPS positions pay even less.

“We pay them less than we pay our teachers, and at the end of the day, we don’t pay them enough,” said state Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio). “At some point, this legislature is going to have to step up and say, 'Enough is enough.' This isn’t a new issue that all of the sudden popped up.”

Uresti and others wanted more money allocated to the system, while others believed that existing funding could be reallocated to give raises to the front-line workers.

“It’s not going to be a 'more money' issue,” said state Sen. Charles Perry (R-New Braunfels). “It’s going to be where we put our money.”

McClure, representing TexProtects, advocates raising pay to the $50,000 or $55,000 range, so that a wider pool of applicants will be attracted to the job. McClure also said there should be cost of living increases based on where the job is located.

“You’ll hear a lot of complaints from caseworkers that are in high cost of living areas that they are not able to survive on the salaries they are given,” she said.

Grace Ford was two years old when she was killed by her father's girlfriend in 2014.
Grace Ford was two years old when she was killed by her father's girlfriend in 2014.

Doug Reeves drove from North Texas to tell legislators how CPS failed his two-year-old granddaughter Grace Ford, who was killed in 2014 by her father’s girlfriend.

“We called them three times for abusive situations with Grace,” said Reeves, who wore a Minnie Mouse ribbon in Grace’s memory. “Three times, they just dropped the ball. Grace, we felt, was treated like a number.”

Reeves said the caseworker who handled her investigation complained that he had an unmanageable caseload and couldn’t spend any more time on her case. Days before Grace died, he hand-delivered a letter to the CPS office, begging them to do something before something awful happened to Grace.

“When CPS blows it, children are abused and murdered,” Reeves said.

He believes caseworkers need to be paid more, and caseloads needs to be dramatically lowered.

He was heartbroken when he heard about what happened to Leiliana Wright.

“Every time you hear about one of these cases, everybody says something needs to be done,” Reeves said. “But they’ve been saying that for years, and the changes they’ve made haven’t worked.”

He’s hoping that this time, the State of Texas will make real changes before there are more preventable child deaths.