Monday, July 05, 2004

Governor Announces CPS Investigation

Perry announces CPS investigation

Governor reacts to April report, June indictment

By POLLY ROSS HUGHES
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

AUSTIN -- On the heels of an unusual criminal indictment against an entire state agency, Gov. Rick Perry called late Thursday for an investigation into Child Protective Services.

Perry's call for action is the first public step he's taken to address a growing Child Protective Services controversy, which was the subject of a scathing report in April by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

Strayhorn is widely viewed as Perry's chief rival in the next Republican primary for governor.

"We will not tolerate children being victimized by an abusive parent or a system that fails to protect them," Perry said in a statement, adding that the state has "too many instances where abused children are left in harm's way."

The governor's criticisms followed a criminal indictment of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services this week by a grand jury in Hidalgo County. The Children's Protective Service is a division of that agency.

The grand jurors cited the agency's handling of allegations that a stepfather sexually abused three sisters, now ages 12, 13 and 14.

Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra, however, said he can't press criminal charges against an entire state agency.

"There's really no way that I can prosecute a state agency," Guerra was quoted as saying in a Thursday edition of The (McAllen) Monitor.

Perry's statement cited discrepancies in the agency's casework documentation, concerns over casework management and inaction when children have been exposed to abusive situations.

"There is enough evidence from various parts of the state to suggest that some of our most vulnerable children are not receiving the protection they need from abusive situations," Perry said. "The evidence leads me to believe we have a systemic breakdown in the safety net that must protect abused children."

The governor called for Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins to lead the investigations into the practices, which were first identified and decried in Strayhorn's April report, "Forgotten Children."

Just hours before Perry's announcement, Strayhorn called a news conference for this morning "to express her disappointment" at the Department of Family and Protective Services and to call for "sweeping" reforms.

"Comptroller Strayhorn said she was delighted that an hour after the governor finds out she's going to call for sweeping reforms at the agency the governor finally decided to do something," said Strayhorn's spokesman Mark Sanders.

Sanders said Perry "has been silent all these months" since Strayhorn released her report and "now decides it's time to act."

Hawkins and Health and Human Services Inspector General Brian Flood also called a news conference for this morning to discuss how the investigation will proceed.

Flood, as inspector general, directs all investigations, including one now under way into practices of the agency's Adult Protective Services.

Perry also noted concerns recently raised by Rep. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, about child deaths in Bexar County.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick quickly praised Perry's decision to investigate the agency further.

"The investigation must be rapid and thorough. As with recent findings with Adult Protective Services, beyond issues of personnel there are likely substantial structural, process and policy changes that can be identified," Craddick said.

Dewhurst lent his endorsement to the investigation, saying his office has come across cases where the state should act "more decisively and aggressively."

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