Judge sum­mons CPS chief as teen runs away 5th time

Girl, 14, has fled fos­ter care re­peat­edly, been with ‘bad char­ac­ters.’

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drea Ball aball@states­man.com

An Abi­lene judge has or­dered the leader of Texas Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices to show up in court Wed­nes­day to ex­plain why his agency can’t keep a 14-yearold girl from re­peat­edly run­ning away from fos­ter care.

De­part­ment of Fam­ily and Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices Com­mis­sioner Hank Whit­man — who runs Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices — has been di­rected by state Dis­trict Judge Paul Roten­berry to ap­pear in his court­room be­cause the teenager has run away from fos­ter care five times since April.

Roten­berry wants Whit­man to ex­plain why the agency has not been able to “pro­vide care,

con­trol and pro­tec­tion” of the girl, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

The girl was the sub­ject of a statewide Am­ber Alert when she ran away from fos­ter care in April. The Texas De­part­ment of Public Safety said the then-13-year-old was in­volved with an adult and was pos­si­bly be­ing given drugs.

Whit­man is ex­pected to ap­pear at the hear­ing. The agency de­clined to dis­cuss the de­tails of the case.

“Com­mis­sioner Whit­man is al­ways in­ter­ested in fac­ing dif­fi­cult is­sues head-on and find­ing so­lu­tions,” said Pa­trick Crim­mins, spokesman for the De­part­ment of Fam­ily and Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices.

The highly un­usual order for Whit­man to per­son­ally ap­pear in court for a case re­lated to fos­ter care high­lights a long-stand­ing prob­lem for CPS.

In 2016, 1,068 youths ran away, ac­cord­ing to state sta­tis­tics. While the num­ber is just a frac­tion of the ap­prox­i­mately 30,000 chil­dren in state con­ser­va­tor­ship, fos­ter care run­aways are at risk of se­ri­ous harm.

Last year, a 15-year-old fos­ter girl was hit by a van and died af­ter run­ning away from the Hous­ton CPS of­fice in which she was tem­po­rar­ily stay­ing. In a 2017 CPS re­port based on in­for­ma­tion gath­ered from some of the chil­dren, 53 who re­turned af­ter run­ning away said they were vic­tim­ized while miss­ing, in­clud­ing 31 who said they were traf­ficked for sex and 20 who said they were sex­u­ally abused.

Roten­berry’s order sig­nals the frus­tra­tion judges can face when han­dling chronic run­aways. In De­cem­ber, 163 chil­dren were listed as run­aways, in­clud­ing 16 in the re­gion that in­cludes Travis County.

“It is frus­trat­ing, and it does hap­pen more of­ten than you would like for it to hap­pen,” said state Dis­trict Judge Dar­lene Byrne in Austin.

Roten­berry de­clined to com­ment.

The Abi­lene case in­volves a girl who has been in state care since April and has been run­ning away from res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ters, ac­cord­ing to Bryce Bed­ford, the girl’s at­tor­ney ad litem. CPS work­ers found and tried to re­turn the teen to the fa­cil­i­ties, but she jumped out of the car and ran away again, he said. The girl is still miss­ing. Ac­cord­ing to court papers filed by the girl’s mother — who wants CPS re­moved as the teen’s tem­po­rary guardian — Roten­berry wants CPS work­ers to re­strain the girl when she tries to run. CPS work­ers have re­fused be­cause agency pol­icy for­bids them to re­strain chil­dren, the doc­u­ment states.

“All they can do is ad­mon­ish them and say ‘Hey, come back here,’” Bed­ford said.

Re­strain­ing fos­ter chil­dren isn’t the right thing to do, Byrne said. Fos­ter chil­dren are of­ten trau­ma­tized and can feel com­pelled to run as a de­fense mech­a­nism, she said.

“The last thing you want is crim­i­nal jus­tice in­volved,” she said. “The cops could get there, and then you’re go­ing to get an evad­ing ar­rest case, and then you lock up the sex-traf­ficked mi­nor.”

Kate Mur­phy with Tex­ans Care for Chil­dren agrees that re­strain­ing fos­ter chil­dren isn’t the an­swer.

“They may feel un­safe, pow­er­less or iso­lated,” she said. “Phys­i­cally re­strain­ing fos­ter youth who run away will not ad­dress those chal­lenges.” But right now, the girl is fac­ing other dan­gers, Bed­ford said.

“Usu­ally when we’ve found her, she’s been around drug­gies, peo­ple us­ing drugs or sell­ing drugs,” Bed­ford said. “She’s been around a lot of bad char­ac­ters.”

Fos­ter chil­dren of­ten run away from emer­gency shel­ters and res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ters. Brandi Bram­lett with the Safe Al­liance — which runs the Austin Chil­dren’s Shel­ter — says staffers there re­strain chil­dren 13 or younger who try to run away be­cause they are less likely to be able to take care of them­selves.

Shel­ter em­ploy­ees can usu­ally talk down po­ten­tial run­aways, but some youths can’t be de­terred, she said.

“Oc­ca­sion­ally you’ll get kid­dos who are go­ing to run, and they’re go­ing to do it no mat­ter what you say or do,” Bram­lett said.

While CPS isn’t per­fect, the de­part­ment has im­proved the way it deals with run­aways in her court, Byrne said. When a child dis­ap­pears, CPS con­tacts law en­force­ment, the Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing and Ex­ploited Chil­dren, the judge and other par­ties in­volved in the case.

Byrne said she hopes Whit­man will con­vince Roten­berry that the de­part­ment is tak­ing the girl’s case se­ri­ously and is do­ing everything it can to find her.

“This is a sur­vival tool for these kids,” she said. “They don’t know who to trust. They don’t know what to trust. From my per­spec­tive, you never, ever, ever give up.”


Hank Whit­man (right), com­mis­sioner of the state De­part­ment of Fam­ily and Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices, is ex­pected to ap­pear at a hear­ing Wed­nes­day about a re­peat teen run­away.

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