Child Protection Services, Texas

Eleven hours after setting off from London (due to 70mph headwind for most of the journey) I arrived in Austin, Texas. The B1/B2 visa allowed a swift passage through immigration and once I’d mastered driving an automatic on the right side of the road and dealing with multiple on-roads and off-roads linking to the IH35 and 183 I finally made it to my base for the week I’ll be spending here.

The last two days have been a fascinating insight into the way that Child Protective Services work in Texas. Last year 156 children died in Texas as a result of child abuse or neglect. The population of Texas is 26.4 million people.

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Estimated figures for the UK indicate that at least one child died every week from neglect or other forms of abuse. The population of the UK is just over 63.2 million people.

So why does Texas have a much higher rate of child deaths from abuse and neglect? Or, perhaps more importantly from this project’s point of view, what has changed to make those 156 deaths, tragic as they are, the lowest number in Texas since 2000?

The answer is clearly multi-factorial but education and community awareness must play an important role – a huge amount of work is being done by the fantastic staff at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Austin, Texas, educating professionals and the public alike about recognition of potential features of child abuse so that the community and services within it can try to intervene earlier to protect those children who are at risk of significant harm. When suspected cases do occur, or when children witness violent or horrendous crimes, the Child Protection Team are on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to provide the assessment, treatment and follow-up services for the child and family. Once a child has been to the center they can continue to use the services offered there for the rest of their life if they wish to.

The highly efficient Child Abuse Resource and Education Team at Dell Children’s Medical Center, Austin (http://www.dellchildrens.net/services_and_programs/child_abuse_resource_and_education_care_program) are one of the most professional teams I have had the pleasure to come into contact with. Inter-agency collaboration and networking is at the heart of what they do and, despite being a small team of clinicians (nurse practitioners and a medical director) I have witnessed the expertise that they offer and highly-skilled input that they give to cases of suspected, possible or obvious child abuse and neglect.

The warmth by which I have been welcomed into their team is very much appreciated and I’ve certainly already got several ideas, based on my experiences so far, that we can easily implement back at home which ought to help better standardise the way that discussions take place around child protection cases.

Tragedies in child protective services, such as the cases of Victoria Climbie (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/273183/5730.pdf) and Peter Connelly (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/haringey-local-safeguarding-children-board-first-serious-case-review-child-a) are not restricted to the UK and I cannot help but think that the equally tragic death of Christopher Wohlers in Texas bears an unfortunate similarity to some of the aspects of the cases involving Victoria and Peter. Christopher was just 20 months old when he was beaten to death yet a week before he tragically died he was brought to a hospital, also badly beaten. In common with Victoria’s case, interagency communication difficulties were present.

A chair, dedicated to the memory of Christopher, is a permanent feature at the entrance to the purpose-built Child Protection Center in Austin:

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I’ve already seen that there is much we can learn from the way that inter-agency communication takes place here in Austin and there are very simple things that we can do to ever improve the quality of the child protection care we give to children and their families.

But what of the legislative system, what is the impact of mandatory reporting on referral rates to child protective services and why is it that there is such a difference between the way that children are treated in the UK legislative system compared with that in Texas? I’ve had a real opportunity to explore some of these key issues with professionals from law enforcement services, State prosecutor services and the District Attorney’s office and, with some pondering on my part, I’ll come back to these in a future posting.

Until then, its time to go and work off the (very large, family-sized) donut I’ve just polished off! Texans don’t shy away from generous food portions…!

 

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