TCU aids in search for abusive parents

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    Davontae Williams was 9 years old when he died. He weighed 35 pounds. He was starving, bruised and battered. After his death, police concluded he spent his days, at least partially, in restraints, locked in a pantry in his mother’s Arlington apartment.Before his death, the caseworkers at Child Protective Services knew they should be concerned about Davontae. They just couldn’t find him.

    His mother, Marcella Williams, who would be charged in Davontae’s death, had been investigated by CPS six times in nine years, but she moved frequently and CPS caseworkers could not find her.

    A United Relationship

    When Pat Cheong, assistant vice president of United Way of Metropolitan Tarrant County and manager of the United Way Families Way Impact Council, read about Davontae in July 2004, she started putting the pieces in place for a partnership involving TCU, the United Way and CPS that could go a long way toward eliminating cases like Davontae’s.

    “When I heard this,” Cheong recalled, “I thought, ‘Gee, our caseworkers – who are social workers essentially – are they really best equipped to be tracking down families?'”

    So Cheong brought her concerns to Susan Ferrari, the deputy regional director for Tarrant County CPS. Together, Cheong said, they decided CPS caseworkers, who in 2004 had to investigate more than 15,000 reports of child abuse, were not best suited to track down elusive parents.

    What CPS needed, they decided, was a private investigator. Ferrari said CPS workers, busy locating children, investigating allegations and recommending courses of action for dealing with cases of abuse, did not have the time to track down families like Davontae’s. She said she recognized the potential benefits of working with a private investigator who could devote 100 percent of his time to finding families CPS couldn’t locate.

    The United Way, Ferrari said, could not give the money directly to CPS because it is a government agency, so Ferrari contacted Alan Dettlaff, a TCU assistant professor of social work and former CPS caseworker.

    “TCU provided us with the ability to have an agency that manages the funds, and they don’t charge anything,” Ferrari said. “They manage all the billing and payment to the private eye, and it’s free of charge, so money from the grant is not being utilized to an agency to manage the contract. It goes 100 percent into finding children.”

    One of a Kind

    Dettlaff, who helped develop the plan’s specifics and tracks the program’s results, said that from his experience as a caseworker, he knew how difficult it could be to track down families intentionally trying to avoid investigation, so he devised a nontraditional approach.

    “This project is very innovative, first of all, because as far as I know, and as far as Child Protective Services knows,” Dettlaff said, “there’s not another program being done like this in the country to address the problem of families that aren’t able to be located by Child Protective Services.”

    United Way donated $71,000 to contract with a private investigator who would look into 125 cases a year, at an estimated 10 hours a case, beginning in November 2004.

    But Dettlaff said 400 cases went down as “unable to locate” in the year before the grant period, so he and Ferrari had to develop a criteria for which cases to refer to the private investigator.

    Only cases involving preschool-aged children, children who had been withdrawn from school by their parents in order to avoid investigation, or children who came from families with a history of crime or physical or sexual abuse would be referred to the private investigator, Ferrari said.

    “The CPS investigator has to do a certain number of tasks to prove they have not been able to find the family,” Ferrari said. “They have to utilize all the tools that we have, and once they’ve exhausted that, they refer those cases to the private investigator, which before, they were closing.”

    A Tough Road

    But in the program’s first seven months, the private investigator only located the families in 14 of the 56, or 25 percent, of the cases referred to him – only slightly higher than the 17 percent of families CPS found by chance after its workers closed cases before the program went into effect.

    Cheong, troubled by those statistics and worried about the subsequent reports of abuse CPS had received against families whose cases had already been referred to the private investigator, said she began to question whether the program would be effective enough to please the United Way’s donors.

    “I looked at (the statistics) and said, ‘Huh, these results don’t look very conclusive,'” Cheong recalled. “‘Maybe this method isn’t particularly successful. If CPS is getting the report again, and CPS is going to find them the next time around, what difference does it make?'”

    But Dettlaff said he kept faith in the program.

    “When we started this project, we were all in agreement,” Dettlaff said, “that you really can’t look at success in this program in terms of numbers because even if one family is found with this program, and in that family, a child is being severely abused, and without this program, they wouldn’t have been found, then that makes this program successful.”

    Still, Dettlaff said, although he didn’t have an exact estimate in mind for the number of cases he expected to find, they decided to being working with another private investigator. That’s when the program took off.

    Digging Deep Pays Off

    In the five months that closed out the program’s first year, the new private investigator, Geoffrey Tait of Cat’s-Eye Intelligence Service, tracked down the families in more than 65 percent, or 75 of 114, cases referred to him.

    Tait said the skills he has picked up in his nearly 20 years as a private investigator serve him well in finding missing families. He said he searches public records as a means for giving him a place to start his search, but from there, a lot of what he does is “simply footwork.”

    He said he talks to apartment-complex managers, neighbors or relatives – anyone who may be helpful – in the process of tracking down a family.

    On one Friday morning, Tait went to eight different apartment complexes on Lancaster Street tracking down one lead, he said, something the CPS caseworker doesn’t have time to do.

    Although Tait said he makes less money working with CPS than he does on the average job, the possibility of helping children at risk of being abused and taking part in a groundbreaking project make his effort worth it.

    “What attracted me to this project was its totally unique approach to locating families in order to help safeguard the children who are at greatest risk,” Tait said.

    Ferrari said that in the first year, abuse or neglect was associated with 58 of the cases found by the private investigator. In 19 of those cases, CPS found it necessary to provide in-home services or parenting courses to the family, and in five cases, the abuse or neglect was so bad that the children were removed from the home.

    “(Before the program), the case would have been closed, and we would have not known until somehow a re-referral came into our agency, and sometimes when that happens, the re-referral can be a very serious injury or even a child death,” Ferrari said.

    The Price of Success

    Spurred on by the program’s success, particularly in the first year’s five months with Tait involved, the United Way granted $86,365 to expand the program so more cases could be referred and continue it for another year.

    Cheong said she hopes the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the state agency that oversees CPS, recognizes the value of using private investigators so charities will not have to continue bearing the financial burden of such a program.

    “In other words, our obligation is a one-year grant and now a second-year grant,” Cheong said. “We’re not intending for this to be ongoing funding from United Way.”

    Dettlaff and Ferrari said they hope they can share the success they have had working with a private investigator so CPS agencies in the nation consider similar programs.

    “We would like to, before the end of the second year, we would like to do a proposal to try to expand the project, present it to CPS and the state agency to fund the project because of the success of keeping children safe,” Ferrari said.

    Sharing the Wealth

    Dettlaff said TCU is well-served by devoting time and faculty to a partnership with CPS.

    “It shows that TCU is involved in addressing some of the problems facing children and families in Tarrant County,” he said, “and that we’re using our resources to collaborate with community agencies that are interested in the best interests of children and families in the community.”

    Dettlaff said he would like to begin sharing his findings with social-work and child-welfare groups as soon as possible, with an eye on being published after a second year’s results are in, but that his personal gains go beyond any professional accomplishments that may come of the project.

    “The biggest thing is that I’ve been able to be involved in a program that has protected children from abuse and neglect, which is what I used to do in my job in the agency,” he said. “Now I’m still able to be involved with protecting children from abuse and neglect through a project like this.