DALLAS (WFAA) - On any given day in the past six months, nearly a thousand of Texas' "highest-priority" children — considered by the state to be at immediate risk of physical or sexual abuse — were not checked on even once by Child Protective Services investigators.
Another 1,800 of those kids were seen by investigators, but not within the required 24-hour window following an urgent report of possible abuse or mistreatment.
In Dallas County alone, there were 228 high-priority kids each day who never got a face-to-face visit, according to an analysis by The Texas Tribune, our sister station's media partner.
“It's unacceptable for any child to go without a face-to-face contact,” Marissa Gonzales, a CPS investigator. “You have to see the child face to face in order to ensure that they are safe that's our job and we have to do it.”
The numbers, publicly released by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services on Tuesday, paint a disturbing picture of the Texas child welfare system as it buckles under a funding crisis. The agency has said it faces a $40 million budget shortfall, combined with large caseloads for its employees, rapid staff turnover and a severe shortage of high-quality foster homes. State lawmakers have vowed to pass reforms when they reconvene in 2017.
The statewide numbers were collected between March 28 and September 12 –- some of it during the height of the CPS crisis in Dallas County.
Workers had fled, caseloads soared, and 4-year-old Leiliana Wright was beaten and tortured, among a litany of missteps by CPS workers assigned to protect her.
News 8 interviewed several caseworkers earlier this year who say who say they did the best they could during the crisis.
“The priority was always to see the children, to physically lay eyes on them, to either know that what was in that report was truthful or what was in this report was not truthful,” said Akaiya Thomas, a former CPS investigator.
Thomas left because things got so bad.
“It was just overwhelming,” she said.
Some highlights from the CPS data, which tracked children one day each week between March 28 and Sept. 12:
In Harris County alone — home to the city of Houston — there were 267 highest-priority kids on any given day that CPS never had a face-to-face visit with. That accounted for nearly 30 percent of the 935 highest-priority kids not seen across the state.
Among all Texas kids who fell into the second-highest-priority category, which includes suspected cases of abuse or neglect that are considered less urgent, 3,926 had never had a face-to-face visit from a CPS investigator.
An additional 11,878 kids in that second tier did have a face-to-face visit, but it happened after the 72-hour time window mandated by state law for those less urgent cases.
Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, said the numbers were indefensible.
"Not seeing kids who may be child abuse victims is not acceptable," he said in an email. "That's our job and we have to be better."
The data itself remains murky because the agency says its counting method was inconsistent over time. While there appears to be an increase in the number of kids who were never checked on, Crimmins said an internal policy change likely accounted for the upward trend.
There is some good news.
Dallas County CPS turnover is down to 33 percent from 57 percent earlier this year. Caseloads have dropped to 26 a month from 32. And Dallas County is now fully staffed with investigators.
“We know what we're going to see caseloads coming down,” Gonzales said. “And delinquency numbers are coming down, as well.”
In September, CPS saw 94 percent of its kids face-to-face in North Texas. In the most high-risk risk cases, 79 percent of the kids were seen within the 24-hour requirement.
CPS officials acknowledge that it’s still not good enough, but they say things are headed in the right direction. The child welfare agency has asked the Legislature for funding to add 510 more investigators and special investigators to its ranks.
"The key is getting more workers in the field, regardless of turnover," Crimmins said, adding that many investigators attempt to locate families who are "not home, who have moved or who do not want to be found."