Two Cases Show the Twin Problems Faced by Child Protective Services

September 22, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

It’s the Scylla and Charybdis of child protective services. On one hand a child is murdered by her mother who’s known by CPS to have mental problems, be neglectful of the kids and actively keep their father out of their lives. In other words, CPS did too little to address a clear threat to two children. On the other the police and CPS intervene in a mother-child relationship for no good reason, taking CPS caseworkers away from children who need their attention and protection. On the one hand, not nearly enough time was spent; on the other, far too much. Here’s the first article (Sacramento Bee, 9/21/14). And here’s the second (Fox San Antonio, 9/19/14).

Unsurprisingly, the two cases that occurred 2,000 miles apart and have nothing to do with each other say a lot about one of the most significant problems of the child protection system — too-high caseloads.

This past July, Aqueline Talamantes was convicted of murdering her daughter, Tatiana, by drowning the five-year-old in the bathtub. She did that on September 26, 2013. But long before then, Sacramento CPS knew she was a problem. Talamantes had been reported to CPS twice before in two separate counties. Then in August, 2013, she showed up at Sutter Hospital and someone, probably a medical professional there, called CPS reporting that Talamantes was behaving in an “extremely paranoid” manner and completely ignoring her children who were disturbing hospital personnel and patients. At the time, Talamantes said she’d stopped taking her medication for schizophrenia because she could no longer afford it.

Now, to just about anyone, that would add up to a situation that needed close examination. A single mother with severe mental problems and not enough money to buy the drugs she needed to control them is a mother who needs at least close supervision and probably more.

Had CPS taken the trouble to delve into the situation, they’d have also learned that Talamantes had done all she could to oust the children’s father, Oracio Garcia from their lives.

In 2009, Solano County CPS received a report about domestic abuse involving Talamantes and the father of her children, Oracio Garcia. The report said the parents fought a lot in the presence of Tatiana. The case was deemed unfounded.

The following year, Stanislaus County CPS received another complaint alleging that Garcia hit Talamantes and Tatiana. Garcia denied the allegations. Officials decided the evidence was inconclusive.

Two years ago, a Yolo Superior Court judge awarded sole custody of the children to Talamantes. Garcia, who was allowed supervised visits of the children, protested the decision, saying he had never hurt Talamantes or the children.

“She’s making up things because she’s angry and she even told she would do whatever it takes to take the children out of my life,” he said in a written statement to the court. “She gets mad and takes it out on everyone … She has a big attitude problem.”

Garcia may not be a saint, but he looks very much like a father who is yet another victim of that all too common malady of CPS social workers — the tendency to believe mothers who say fathers are abusive. He lost almost all contact by virtue of a series of unfounded complaints to a woman who swore to take the children from him. Even so, he still had visitation rights and therefore could have provided at least a temporary haven for them while CPS figured out what the problem was with Talamantes.

But the case never got close to that.

A CPS social worker went to Talamantes’ apartment to interview her seven days later, even though she was told that Talamantes was going to be evicted from the apartment the day before, according to records in Tatiana’s juvenile court file.

So the CPS caseworker went to a residence where he/she knew Talamantes wouldn’t be and, not finding her there, left a business card and apparently closed the file. In any case, the caseworker never returned or made any effort to follow up. Less than three weeks later, Tatiana was dead and Talamantes found herself on that long conveyor belt that begins with arrest and ends in prison. She’s currently serving 25 years to life for Tatiana’s murder.

Clearly, CPS did too little to protect a child caseworkers knew to be in danger. But it’s probably not simple callousness on their part.

Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, said CPS did not meet its responsibilities in the case. He reviewed some of the case files for The Bee.

“One way to look at what happened is this is death by caseload,” he said. “Here, a medical professional said on Aug. 29 that the mother was extremely paranoid and disturbed. A CPS social worker visited the house on Sept. 6, and left a card at the home. But, likely owing in part to the huge caseloads of Sacramento CPS social workers, there was never any follow-up at all and, 20 days later, the little girl was horribly murdered by her mother.”

Death by caseload. As is so often the case, California CPS caseworkers have far too many cases to handle. Just what the figures are in Sacramento County, I don’t know, but statewide they run to twice the number indicated by industry standards. Would greater attention from CPS have made a difference? It certainly could have. But for whatever reason, Tatiana fell through the many holes in the child protective safety net.

As usual, those holes are there in large part because legislatures budget too little money to hire sufficient caseworkers to deal with the flood of claims about child abuse and neglect. The U.S. Administration for Children and Families collects data on cases of alleged child abuse and neglect throughout the country. They found that last year there were some 3.2 million of those complaints nationwide, but only 686,000 were deemed founded. In other words, almost 80% of complaints claiming child abuse or neglect were either investigated and found to be unverified or shouldn’t have been made at all.

So, in addition to the problem of too few caseworkers, there’s another problem — too many complaints. And that of course brings us to our next case from Austin, Texas.

Kari Anne Roy lives in a quiet South Austin neighborhood and says she is comfortable letting her children play outside.

"There’s a walking trail. They come out here and they walk around the trail," explained Roy.

But when a woman spotted Roy’s six-year-old son alone on a bench about a 150 yards from his house she brought him home and contacted Austin police. Roy says Child Protective Services also showed up to question her and her kids.

For Roy’s son, there was none of the neglect by CPS Tatiana Talamantes suffered in Sacramento. That’s not because Texas CPS is staffed or funded any better than is California’s. On the contrary, for the past several years, the Lone Star State’s efforts at protecting its children have become a scandal whose proportions have only grown. As in California, Texas caseworkers are hugely overworked, but to add to the problem, their paperwork requirements are so onerous one investigative organization found they spend more of their time in the office filling out forms and typing up reports than they do with families.

But they had plenty of time to visit Kari Anne Roy for the sin of allowing her son to play unattended in safe neighborhood. And what a visit it was!

"My eight year old was very concerned about the questions that were asked, like had she seen people’s private parts or those types of movies," Roy told us. "And those are things she had not really thought of or known existed."…

"My 12-year-old is particularly bothered, because he understands the consequences. He understands that CPS could take them away," Roy added.

So the visit by the police and CPS was actually far more abusive and terrifying to the children than simply going to the park close to their house was or had ever been. Now the eight-year-old daughter has troubling questions about body parts she’d never even thought of before and the 12-year-old is scared he’ll be taken from his parents and his siblings. Nice.

And Roy gets the other part of the problem with the pointless intrusion of CPS into her family’s life.

"Having CPS have to come to a house because a child was playing outside takes away their time and resources from investigating the kids that really need it," Roy told us.

Yes, and it’s just possible that, at the very time CPS was ruining Roy’s day and frightening her children, somewhere across town, a child was being beaten or even drowned by its mother in the bathtub. Of such things are case overloads made.

In the final analysis, protecting children is more than a matter of hiring enough caseworkers, although that’s certainly part of it. But another part is that we as a culture need to get away from our insane delusion that anything short of 24-hour-a-day in-person supervision by a qualified adult constitutes child abuse or neglect. We see this time and again and reports like the one made on Kari Anne Roy are not only pointless wastes of time, but a drain on scarce child protective resources. When almost 80% of reports of abuse or neglect are unfounded, it’s hard not to conclude that reporters need to exercise a bit of sane judgment.

But, to complete the circle, mandated reporters like teachers and doctors, are legally prohibited from doing that. Any time they see anything that might indicate abuse, they’re obligated to report it and CPS is obligated to investigate. So the problem of too many reports is built into the system, meaning there’ll be ever more Kari Anne Roys and Tatiana Talamantes. The one produces the other.


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