Texas child welfare agency changes policy

August 27, 2008 3:31:19 AM PDT
A federal appeals court ruling will force the state's child welfare agency to obtain court orders prior to removing allegedly abused children from their homes, unless their lives are in immediate danger, officials said. The ruling last month by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will affect child abuse investigations in the three states covered by its jurisdiction -- Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

"The decision will require us to make some extremely difficult decisions," Carey Cockerell, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said in an "urgent legal advisory" sent on Friday to all Child Protective Services personnel, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reported Tuesday in online editions.

The ruling resulted from an ongoing lawsuit against the state of Texas filed by a Fort Bend County couple and their 13 children. The court said state and local officials who removed the children during a child abuse investigation may have acted improperly but were protected by government immunity.

Generally, CPS removes a child if there's a threat of immediate danger or sexual abuse and then heads to the court to seek a removal order from a judge.

The state must obtain parental consent or a court order prior to removal "unless life or limb is in immediate jeopardy or sexual abuse is about to occur," the memo states.

The newspapers obtained Cockerell's memo which instructed staff to follow the new policies to avoid being sued for monetary damages if children are removed in violation of the new policies.

Furthermore child abuse investigators must consider other factors involving each child in the home before any of them are removed. The standard practice of removing all children in a household when abuse was suspected on any single child was the basis for removing more than 400 children from a West Texas polygamist group in April.

Gary Gates, the Fort Bend County man whose lawsuit prompted the revisions, said the changes will protect families from having their constitutional rights violated.

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said he believes the department's new policies are an overreaction to the ruling.

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