Some form of child protective services exists in every state in the United States, and encountering CPS can be an upsetting and scary experience for both children and adults. It's important for all adults, not just parents and educators, to know the basic CPS laws of their state. Texas has some specific laws related to CPS that differ from those of the rest of the country.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) is the body that oversees child abuse and child neglect investigations and cases as well as elder abuse and other family issues. Within that department, Child Protective Services becomes involved with children and families when they are referred by the DFPS investigations division. This division investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect before referring them to CPS. The responsibilities of CPS in Texas include:
- Providing family-based safety services, family group decision-making, responsible fathering initiatives and other services to children and families in their own homes. These services can help prevent the need to remove children from their families or facilitate the return of a child to the family.
- Placing children in foster care and helping youth currently in foster care successfully transition to adulthood through services such as Texas youth connection, permanency planning for older youth and transitional living services.
- Helping children get adopted and helping those who were adopted obtain records and information.
This means that if DFPS gets a report of child abuse or neglect and the investigation shows that the child might be in danger, CPS is empowered to remove the child, remove the perpetrator or work with the family in their home.
In Texas, unlike in many other jurisdictions, everyone has a legal duty to report suspected child abuse or neglect, not just the usual mandatory reporters such as teachers or health care professionals. This even applies to individuals whose communications would otherwise be regarded as privileged, including lawyers, therapists, clergy and medical professionals. Failing to report suspected neglect is a class A misdemeanor. This may result in as much as a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000.
Because every adult in Texas is legally obligated to report suspected child abuse or neglect, it's important for every adult to understand what constitutes abuse and neglect in the state. There are both civil and criminal penalties in Texas for child abuse and neglect.
By law, a parent or guardian must provide or arrange for someone else to provide certain necessities to any children under their care. These include safe and adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision and protection. Neglect is defined as failure to meet all of these responsibilities. Texas law recognizes four types of child neglect:
- Physical neglect is the failure to provide a child with the food, clothing and shelter necessary to maintain a healthy life.
- Medical neglect is the failure to seek, obtain or administer medical care and treatment when substantial harm could have resulted.
- Neglectful supervision is the failure to properly supervise a child or see to the supervision of the child when substantial harm could have resulted.
- Abandonment and refusal to accept parental responsibility means a parent or caregiver left a child in a potentially harmful situation and did not plan to return for the child. The refusal to accept parental responsibility specifically refers to when a child has been out of the home for any reason and the parent/caregiver refuses to allow the child to return home.
Texas recognizes several factors as signs of child neglect, including:
- Dirty and torn clothes
- Needing frequent medical or dental care
- Frequent absences from school
- Long periods where a child is alone
- Poor personal hygiene
Not all instances of neglect qualify as child abuse. Texas recognizes several types of child abuse:
- Physical abuse is identified by deliberate actions resulting in injuries to a child or genuine threats of such actions. Concerns about physical injuries of a suspicious or unexplained nature are also reported as such.
- Emotional abuse is identified by "emotional or mental injury caused by the parent or caregiver that results in an observable effect on the child." Concerns about the psychological state of the child or her mental stability as demonstrated by behavior, mood or thoughts is also reported as such.
- Sexual abuse includes sexual indecency, sexual assault, using a child in making obscene or pornographic materials and "failing to make a reasonable effort to prevent sexual conduct to a child."
- Trafficking includes both labor trafficking and sex trafficking. In labor trafficking, a parent or caregiver forces a child to perform labor or services that are harmful or unhealthy for the child. In sex trafficking, a parent or caregiver receives compensation for forcing a child to engage in sex acts.
Texas law also distinguishes between current abuse or neglect and past abuse or neglect. A case only qualifies as past abuse or neglect if all three of the following conditions are met:
- The abuse or neglect happened in the past and is not ongoing.
- There are no current safety issues or concerns threatening the child.
- There is no apparent risk of recurrence of abuse or neglect in the foreseeable future.
Such an incident may have met the legal definition of abuse or neglect at the time it occurred, but there is no current danger to the child at the time of the report. Past abuse or neglect is referred to law enforcement for possible criminal prosecution and is not handled by CPS.
Penalties for abandoning or endangering a child in Texas are not absolute and exist on a sliding scale based on the seriousness of the charge. For example, simple abandonment is punishable by a fine and six months to two years in a state jail. However, if the abandonment placed a child in imminent danger of bodily injury, physical or mental impairment or death, it is a second-degree felony that can result in two to 20 years in prison along with a fine.
The identity of a person who reports abuse or neglect to DFPS is confidential. If someone provides contact information for herself as part of her report and is later questioned again for further details, she may be identified as a witness in the documents and records released to entitled parties. However, any information identifying the witness as the initial reporter will be removed. DFPS can only reveal the identity of an initial reporter to a judge or to law enforcement personnel under certain circumstances.
CPS will then investigate the report. If it believes the child to be in danger, it can remove the child from the unsafe environment. In certain situations, CPS may instead remove the perpetrator, provided that the remaining parent(s) or caregiver(s) can guarantee that they will not allow the perpetrator to return. This is sometimes done in the interest of disrupting the child's life as little as possible.
If a child is removed, CPS rules in Texas stipulate that it will notify the parents in writing and provide any papers filed with the court, and there will be a court hearing within 14 days. The judge can decide if the child can be returned to the home, if the child should stay with a friend or family member or if the child should remain in foster care under CPS custody.
If the judge does not decide to return the child, CPS will develop a service plan with input from the parents, outlining steps and conditions under which the child could be returned. If the child was not initially removed and no court case was filed, CPS may still create a safety plan that, if not met, will result in a court case.
Once CPS files a court case against a parent or parents, the parent or parents have 12 months to show the court that the child can be safely returned to them — this is how long the case stays open. The CPS investigation itself must be completed within 30 days, though the deadline can be extended.