But for more than a decade, no unenviable top ranking has worried state officials more than the annual number of children who die of abuse and neglect.
Although the number of child abuse and neglect deaths has dropped significantly in the last five years, from 280 to 156, Texas continues to lead the nation in this type of tragedy, and state officials are not happy.
“The death of even one child due to abuse or neglect is unacceptable,” Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said after announcing the creation of a committee that will look into the issue before the Legislature is back in session in January.
“The Texas House is committed to working with Child Protective Services and local communities to prevent senseless tragedies,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said in a statement. “I am confident that this committee will provide meaningful recommendations to improve outcomes for Texas children.”
The House Select Committee on Child Protection, a 12-member panel that includes Rep. John Frullo, plus three public members, holds its first public hearing on Tuesday.
Frullo, R-Lubbock, who has served on the Committee on Human Trafficking and has passed major legislation to protect children, said he is ready.
“It grieves me to know that the children of this state are suffering abuse and neglect,” Frullo said after Straus appointed him.
“Through my work on the human trafficking committee, I have seen firsthand how abuse is so devastating to a child, and I look forward working with the committee to find ways to prevent these horrible things from happening,” he said.
Though the Select Committee on Child Protection has yet to release the list of child abuse and neglect experts and of other witnesses, a report the staff of another legislative panel released last month offers a glimpse of what the committee can expect to hear.
The staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission — the joint panel that every two years evaluates the performance of about two dozen state agencies and then recommends to the Legislature whether the reviewed offices should be abolished, overhauled or remain unchanged — issued a report describing CPS as a deeply troubled agency.
Over the years, CPS has been characterized by high turnover and low morale.
“Any assessment of Child Protective Services must be made with consideration of the challenging context in which it operates,” part of an 118-page Sunset report on the Department of Family and Protective Services reads.
“This environment is uncertain and often dangerous, where bad things unfortunately happen, with tragic and heartrending results,” the report said. “CPS does not gather and evaluate sufficient data to most accurately assess the risk to children and the quality of service it provides.”
Federal officials also are also paying attention to what is happening in Texas.
“Texas has the highest number of child abuse and neglect deaths in the nation, even compared to larger states such as California, and even though the number has gone down in the last two years,” said David Sanders, chairman of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.
Created by an act of Congress two years ago, the 12-member panel earlier this month hosted a two-day forum in San Antonio.
In Texas, as in the rest of the nation, there is the need to create a uniform way to determine what works and what doesn’t in trying to reduce child abuse and neglect deaths, Sanders told reporters after the conference ended.
“How officials count these deaths varies from state to state and even within states,” Sanders explained. “Are we only talking about homicides at the hand of caregivers, or are we including drowning related to neglect? Right now there are a lot of gray areas.”
Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas Law School and one of the three public members in the Child Protection Committee, said at the San Antonio forum that part of the problem is social workers having heavy workloads.
The workloads do not allow social workers to spend the time needed to build relationships with potential victims or with their families, McCown and other speakers said. About 80 percent of all children who died because of abuse or neglect are under 3 years of age and their parents are usually very young — mostly in their teens — and unprepared for parenthood.
“We have tiny prevention,” McCown, a former state district judge, said. “We need to call for fundamental reform.”
Rep. Dawnna Dukes, chairwoman of the Child Protection Committee, welcomed the creation and mission of the panel.
“I firmly believe that the creation of the Protect Our Kids Commission and the House Select Committee on Child Protection sends a strong signal of our commitment to addressing this critical issue,” Dukes, D-Austin, said in a statement.
The Protect Our Kids Commission is also a federal panel created in 2012.