Recent news from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the agency tasked with helping children at risk of abuse or neglect, was singularly depressing: Since the beginning of the year, nearly 2,300 workers have made for the exits.

The departing workers cite a litany of problems as their reasoning: Too many cases, pressure to close cases prematurely, low morale and pay, lack of communication, problems with supervisors and a host of other workplace dysfunction.

My immediate thought was: Same song, second — or third, or fourth — verse.

In 2013, while working at the San Antonio Express-News, I undertook a major investigation of DFPS — specifically its Child Protective Services, the sector charged with monitoring, protecting and — if necessary — removing children at risk of maltreatment in their homes.

I’d heard rumblings that year that CPS was long plagued with a negative work culture, one that was putting kids at risk. To tell the story, I needed to find a case that illustrated what was at stake. A local politician who’d made child abuse prevention his personal crusade told me about the tragedy of Sarah Brasse, an 8-year-old in Schertz who died in her own bed of — yes, in the 21st century — untreated appendicitis.

Her horrific story is compounded by the fact little has changed since her death; CPS workers continue to struggle and flee their jobs, kids remain at risk and too many children who are supposed to be protected by the state instead end up further harmed or dead.

As a reporter, there are some stories that stick with you. Sarah’s story is like that for me. As I worked, I found myself repeatedly glancing at a happy photograph of Sarah taken before she got sick and died — a blond wisp of a girl with an impish smile. I found myself wishing I could travel back in time to 2009 so that I could intervene and get her the care she so desperately needed — something her parents and CPS decidedly didn’t do.

It’s not like Sarah’s parents, David Brasse and Samantha Britain, weren’t on the agency’s radar. By the time Sarah died alone in her bed, stiff, cold and caked with vomit, the couple had been under intermittent watch by CPS for almost two years.

During that time, numerous calls came into the agency from people concerned that Sarah and her two brothers were being neglected. Urine-soaked clothes, insufficient food, a fetid home in chaos, a lack of parental follow-up on needed medical visits — the red flags were plentiful.

But each time a call came in, CPS reacted in half-hearted, ineffective fashion. It let the couple off the hook when they failed to get required parental training, apparently cowed by Brasse’s adversarial demeanor. In one instance, a supervisor reversed the red-alarm findings of one caseworker. In the 48 hours before Sarah died, three professionals in separate calls — a cop, a school counselor and a school nurse — alerted CPS to their fears she was in danger, yet no one ordered a home visit.

Records showed the child hadn’t been visited for over six weeks. Virtually all workers assigned to her case were weighed down with too many cases, double and triple the load of 12 to 15 recommended by child welfare experts.

At the trial after Sarah’s death, a medical examiner testified she would have lived if she’d seen a doctor. The couple was convicted of manslaughter and injury to a child and sentenced to three years in prison, verdicts that were overturned on appeal, with the court claiming — unbelievably — that there was insufficient evidence of criminal recklessness.

CPS did an internal review and found that — surprise! — higher-ups weren’t to blame. None lost their jobs. The main finding was that frontline workers needed more training, the agency’s standard response whenever a child’s death makes headlines. A later review by the Office of Inspector General, triggered by my story, also laid the blame on caseworkers, leaving managers unscathed.

To tell Sarah’s story, I talked to current and former CPS workers who described a work culture beset by troubles — overstressed workers burdened by too many cases, poorly trained supervisors, favoritism, office politics, low pay and morale, a “culture of fear” that stifled speaking up. High caseworker turnover meant those who remained had to take on the load, putting kids at risk when workers cut corners just to stay afloat.  

Sound familiar?

Over the years, both before and after Sarah’s death, the Texas Legislature has directed multiple millions in funding to DFPS to try and fix the system. It’s formed special committees and task forces and championed reform bills. It’s made DFPS its own standalone agency; it’s tried to “privatize” the state’s troubled foster care program, with often dismal results, including a rollout in San Antonio that was an unmitigated disaster

There’s been some progress, but not enough. Children continue to die.

With the recent hemorrhaging of workers — DFPS had an overall turnover rate of 26.9% from September 2020 to August 2021, the third-highest rate of all state agencies with more than 1,000 employees — officials suggested that the COVID-19 related “Great Resignation” played a role.

That may well be true. But they also blamed the “nature of the work” — the same excuse I was given by officials when spotlighting CPS breakdowns in the context of Sarah’s death. While it’s undoubtedly true that child abuse work is taxing and often horrifying, so is police and firefighter work, two entities with far lower turnover rates.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services office on Castroville Road in San Antonio Monday.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services office on Castroville Road in San Antonio on Monday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

About that embattled foster care system: Over a decade ago, a federal class-action suit was filed that said Texas was catastrophically failing its foster children. In 2015, a federal judge agreed and ordered a host of reforms, targeting such things as dangerous and unmonitored foster care facilities and the state’s habit of stashing kids in hotels and CPS offices or shipping them out of state due to a lack of suitable placements.

In the years since, DFPS has seemingly fought tooth-and-nail against her demands, frustrating U.S. District Judge Janis Jack to such a degree that she has levied fines and found the state in contempt of court multiple times. 

“It looks like we’re just going from bad to worse,” she said in court as recently as last January.

But the CPS worker exodus and the continued struggles of the foster care system are just one layer in a dark miasma comprising Texas’ failure to protect its children.

Last February, Gov. Greg Abbott directed CPS to investigate families for child abuse if they provide their transgender children with gender-affirming care, such as puberty blockers. (Which was another factor in a string of CPS worker departures this spring.)

Despite ongoing legal challenges, Abbott and his crew seem determined to prevent parents from giving their trans children the kind of care — supported by major medical organizations — that can save their very lives. The move has forced some families to leave the state, and caused the state’s only specialized transgender clinic to shut down.

More layers in the miasma: Texas suffers from a dramatic shortage of programs and services for children and youth suffering from mental health issues, a growing tsunami here and across the country. The lack of insurance coverage for kids in Texas — the highest rate in the nation — no doubt exacerbates this dire state of affairs.

Things get no better at the dinner table: 1 in 5 children in Texas faces hunger.

But the neglect starts even earlier: Texas ranks worst in the nation in maternal and prenatal care. Motherhood itself is dangerous in Texas, which has an elevated maternal mortality rate, particularly among Black mothers, who die during childbirth at twice the rate white mothers do.

Birth brings no relief: Like the other states with strict abortion bans, Texas has one of the weakest social safety nets for women and children. The state routinely scores low in surveys of child well-being. It has one of the highest teen birth rates in the nation.

After Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision recognizing a federal right to abortion, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, Abbott ballyhooed the fact Texas chose to expand Medicaid to cover six months of postpartum care. But all but 16 other states expanded such care to a full year. 

I guess Texas babies and mothers just aren’t worth it.

Meanwhile, in Texas, 1.4 million children live in poverty, one of the highest rates in the nation. And despite the heartbreaking pleas of Uvalde parents, Abbott continues to refuse to call a special session on guns.

Given all this — given the grim realities that face far too many children (like Sarah Brasse) once they leave the womb — how on earth can Gov. Greg Abbott claim that Texas is a pro-life state?

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje has worked in Texas newspaper journalism for more than three decades, at the San Antonio Light, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She holds bachelor’s...