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May 2nd, 2016:

A personal story of CPS’ failure to protect children

I can’t begin to tell you how angry this makes me.

The new foster parents opened the door last September to a child they can only describe as feral.

At 3, he was obese, his brown saucer eyes shell-shocked, his chocolate skin pocked with a rash the CPS caseworker dismissed as eczema but a doctor later said was likely mites burrowing below. His shoes were two sizes too small, and he possessed one toy: a miniature motorcycle, broken.

He had but two words, not in his own tongue, but that of the previous foster placement in Wharton County. Más and luna, more and moon.

The boy – we’ll call him Dion – loved the moon. On a clear night, he would make his new foster parents stop the car to gaze at it. Maybe, in his young life – rootless, churning, abusive – the moon was the only thing standing still, safely out of reach of what was happening here on Earth.

Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffrey would never know the horrors he’d seen. He didn’t come with photos, or a written history. Only violent outbursts and fear in his eyes where trust should have been.

More than anything, Sugarek and Jeffrey wanted to shield him from any more trauma. But this, they say, was the one thing they couldn’t do in a Texas foster care system where abuse is so rampant it was recently found unconstitutional by a federal judge.

The trauma would continue – according to interviews and a review of more than 100 court documents, emails and medical records – this time at the hands of the state.

From the beginning, it was clear Dion’s only chance at a future was a stable, loving home with parents willing to endure bites and black eyes, willing to turn their lives upside down to help him heal.

There’s a shortage of such homes, of such people.

But Dion hit the jackpot. Sugarek, 44, the charismatic principal of Hogg Middle School in the Heights, and her wife, Jeffrey, a 38-year-old science teacher at nearby Travis Elementary, had dedicated their lives to helping children. They had bottomless hearts, energy, education and tools.

A month later, they took in Dion’s 4-year-old brother – we’ll call him Darius – who was much more verbal, but also suffered from behavioral issues and PTSD. According to court records obtained last week, the boys’ parents had a history of family violence, and their mother was a drug addict. Their father has been charged with attempted capital murder. In a little over a year, they’d each lived in four different homes. Dion’s most recent was shut down for abuse and neglect, Sugarek said.

[…]

All the while, the foster parents arranged visits with a teenage half-brother- we’ll call him Bobby – who was also in foster care.

Knowing that CPS strongly prioritizes keeping siblings together, Sugarek and Jeffrey in October asked to increase the number of children they’d accept from two to three. They considered adding a room to their house.

But early on, they say, red flags popped up whenever Bobby was around Dion.

[…]

Texas has been criticized for not tracking child-on-child abuse. But the notion that CPS would actively discourage foster parents from reporting abuse, and even punish them for doing so, is beyond outrageous. Even for a broken system.

No doubt, the 15-year-old had survived his own hell. In 2008, one record shows, CPS received an allegation of sexual abuse involving Bobby and “an unknown perpetrator,” but the case was closed before the investigation started due to allegations being “too vague or general.”

When Sugarek and Jeffrey kept reporting incidents, and it became clear they would not agree to adopt the teen, they say CPS officials began “shopping the boys around” to other families and at an adoption fair.

This, despite glowing reviews about the boys’ care.

[…]

According to the foster mothers and emails they sent to the boys’ therapist, Dion at one point told one mom that Bobby had put something in his rear end that felt like marshmallows. He said Bobby had hurt him.

At mediation, with all parties at the table, the foster moms say they asked for an investigation. Again, denied.

Finally, the final straw. All three boys attended a CPS-supervised adoption fair earlier this month. When they returned, the moms say Darius told them Bobby had taken Dion to the bathroom for a long time. The 3-year-old complained his backside hurt. He wouldn’t let his moms wipe him. Days later, after a swim lesson, he bent down in the changing room, revealing a swollen rectum.

His foster mothers notified the therapist, and their private case manager, and they rushed him to the doctor. Medical records show the boy had an anal “abrasion” and irritated skin, but a forensic sexual assault test was inconclusive.

The foster mothers say they had a duty to report it to CPS, and they say their DePelchin case manager encouraged it, but she warned them: CPS would take the children.

She was right. Almost immediately, CPS announced it was moving the boys to a “respite” placement.

Read the whole thing. That action by CPS happened a few weeks ago. They’re still fighting to get Dion and Darius back. I know all four people involved. Sugarek is Olivia’s principal, Jeffrey was her fourth and fifth grade teacher, and I’ve met both boys since they first brought Dion home at the start of the school year. I’m furious that the system could fail in so obvious a way, and heartbroken for two good people who had gladly taken on a tough job and done so beautifully with it. I have compassion for CPS’ caseworkers, who have an impossible job themselves, and get no support from a state government that just doesn’t care. As angry as I am about the particulars of this case, it’s the indifference from the state, which is busy defending itself from lawsuits while piously proclaiming at every opportunity how much they value babies and human life. Don’t worry, kids, Dan Patrick will stand outside every bathroom you ever use to make sure nothing bad ever happens to you. Beyond that, though, you’re on your own. These tax cuts we’re going to pass next year won’t pay for themselves, you know, and we mustn’t go around throwing money at problems we’re not really interested in solving anyway.

State Auditor asked to investigate Paxton

Come join the party.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

A liberal advocacy group wants the state auditor’s office to investigate whether Attorney General Ken Paxton broke the law by continuing to pay top staffersafter they resigned from the agency.

Progress Texas, a self-described “progressive” public relations firm based in Austin,sent a letter to the auditor Friday asking the office to look into whether Paxton “committed abuse and violated state law by misusing government funds” to pay two ex-staffers after they quit working at the agency.

“Paid leave policies are great, but it looks like Paxton violated state law. The facts clearly warrant a State Auditor’s Office investigation, particularly since Paxton’s justification for doling out 64 days of paid leave to two ex-employees has changed multiple times,” Progress Texas Advocacy Director Lucy Stein told The Dallas Morning News. She added: “We welcome a thorough and independent investigation. It’s important that Texans are confident that no elected official is abusing or misusing taxpayer dollars, especially to advance the work of a political campaign.”

[…]

First Assistant Attorney General Charles “Chip” Roy and Communications Director Allison Castle left the agency on March 9. A month later, both remained on the payroll,The News first reported.

Roy formally resigned the next day and backdated his departure from the agency, but Castle remains on the payroll and is scheduled to be paid a second full month’s salary of nearly $13,000 on May 2.

After more than a week of refusing to answer questions about the issue, the agency’s human resources director, John Poole, wrote a piece for a conservative websitedenying Paxton did anything wrong.

“Attorney General Paxton acted in a compassionate, legal, and ethical manner when he granted paid leave to two staffers who had worked tirelessly for the state of Texas,”Poole argued. “I stand by his decision.”

Poole added that Paxton had extended the offer to Roy and Castle under Texas’ emergency leave law, which allows officials to approve paid time off for employees who give “good cause.”

But Roy – in remission for Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma – said he was never on emergency leave and was only using up his accrued vacation time. He had been extended the option to take advantage of his health care benefits as a state employee,he added, if his health took a turn for the worse.

See here for some background. As of this writing, I don’t know if the State Auditor will follow up on this request or not. I don’t believe the Auditor has any power to issue fines or other punishment, but his findings could be used to spur another agency, like the Ethics Commission or a district attorney, to take a look. In the meantime, the Trib talks to one of the other beneficiaries of Paxton’s largesse.

A former aide to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday that he asked for her resignation and that she did not ask for nor negotiate a now-controversial departure package that left the state paying her thousands of dollars in salary and benefits.

“The attorney general wanted to bring in a new team and go in a different direction, and that is certainly his prerogative,” said Allison Castle, who resigned as senior communications director for the embattled attorney general on March 9.

Paxton’s request for her resignation was unexpected, said Castle, who was a veteran adviser to former Gov. Rick Perry before she joined Paxton’s team. After being handed a pre-written resignation letter including the terms of a compensation package, she said she signed it, packed up her belongings and was out of the AG’s office that afternoon.

Castle said she had no reason to question the appropriateness of the terms.

The benefits and compensation deal granted Castle 64 days of paid leave.

[…]

In addition to Castle and Roy, the agency has recently lost a number of other employees, including chief of staff Bernard McNamee, scheduler Katie Lawhon and two spokeswomen, Katherine Wise and Cynthia Meyer.

Lawhon, who, like Roy and Castle, also received administrative leave upon her resignation, told The Texas Tribune on Friday she did not negotiate paid leave beyond her earned vacation time. She said she was informed that she would be getting additional administrative leave, details that appeared in a pre-written resignation letter she later received.

Amid the staffing shakeup, Paxton, a McKinney Republican, has filled several key positions with longtime allies from North Texas.

Here’s the Chron story on Employee #3. My guess is that the payoff to Chip Roy was a favor for a friend, and the other two were motivated by a desire to get more of Paxton’s cronies in the door, with the payout being an incentive to go quietly. I’m just guessing here. You’d think the state’s top attorney would understand the law better than this, but then no one ever claimed Ken Paxton was a legal genius. I do hope the auditor takes this up, if only to see what official explanations are offered.

Video fraudsters to go to trial

All righty then.

Right there with them

Right there with them

David Robert Daleiden, 27, and his colleague, Sandra Susan Merritt, 63, both of California, have rejected a plea deal that would have effectively put an end to the criminal charges against them, their lawyers confirmed Friday.

“I don’t advise my clients to accept responsibility for cases that they haven’t done anything wrong in,” said Dan Cogdell, Merritt’s attorney.

The pair were charged in January with tampering with a governmental record, a second-degree felony with a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Daleiden also faces a misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy human organs.

After a brief status hearing Friday, attorneys said they will not accept offers of pretrial diversion, a low-level probation that would have allowed the charges against them to be dismissed if they did not break the law for a year. It’s commonly offered by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to first-time offenders with minor charges such as shoplifting.

Earlier this month, attorneys for Daleiden filed motions to quash the indictments against him, arguing that the Harris County grand jury that handed down the indictments was not properly empaneled.

See here and here for the background. The defense has alleged that DA Devon Anderson is in cahoots with Planned Parenthood, the defendants are utterly convinced of their righteousness and are prepared to martyr themselves for their cause. This will be…interesting. There’s no mention of a court date, so we’ll just have to be patient.

Lone Star Rail reboot: It’s all about the money

Isn’t it always?

The message was clear: If San Antonio-area officials aren’t willing to commit millions of dollars to planning a regional passenger rail line, Austin-area officials will reconsider their financial commitment to the project.

The Capital Area and Alamo Area metropolitan planning organizations met Wednesday to discuss the status of a proposed passenger rail line known as LSTAR and what role the agencies should have in it. The project, which would connect San Antonio and Georgetown, recently suffered a setback when Union Pacific pulled its tracks from a possible route.

In February, UP nixed the Lone Star Rail District’s proposal to use the company’s freight line tracks that parallels Interstate 35 for passenger rail service. The district, a government-funded agency that represents counties, cities and organizations in the I-35 corridor, is in the midst of an environmental study that has focused heavily on that route.

The district’s board met last week to discuss alternate routes — which could include building new tracks parallel to I-35 or Texas 130 — and voted to continue the environmental study by examining those options. But several officials at the joint MPO meeting expressed concern about the effect UP’s decision could have on the cost and timeline of a project that already has been under discussion for more than a decade.

“The financing of it is really a big question mark,” said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, vice chairman of the Alamo Area MPO. “We’ve already done a lot of work (on planning). Will we be able to utilize any amount of that data in choosing a different alternative?”

In 2007, the Alamo Area MPO set aside $20 million for the passenger service. Those funds, reserved for final design, right-of-way acquisition and construction, have not been spent yet.

In 2011, CAMPO also gave the district $20 million, nearly $12 million of which has been spent on planning the line. The board debated freezing the remainder late last month but ultimately decided to take a closer look at the project and reconsider the issue in June.

Hays County commissioner Will Conley, CAMPO’s chairman, said the board’s final decision on the matter could depend on whether the Alamo Area MPO agrees to foot some of the costs of planning the rail service. He said that commitment would demonstrate San Antonio-area officials’ confidence in the direction of the project.

“There are a lot of us — a majority of us — on the CAMPO board who have lost a lot of confidence in where we’re currently at,” he said. “Are you comfortable with the status quo? If you’re comfortable with the status quo, we would very much like you to make a commitment on the rest of the environmental document.”

See here and here for the background, and click over to the Express News story to see a map with the different route options specified. If the Union Pacific decision to not allow LSR to use its right of way is the death knell for this project, then the planning organizations’ eventual decision to reallocate funding will be the shovel and dirt to bury it. If they vote to keep the funding going, then there’s still a chance. We’ll see how it goes.