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Senator Jane Nelson: District 12
Senator Jane Nelson
P.O. Box 12068, State Capitol
Austin, Texas 78711
Tel. (512) 463-0112
August 3, 2004
Contact: Dave Nelson

How could this happen? As a mother, and as a legislator, I have asked myself that question over and over since I learned about the tragic death of Davontae Williams.

Fingers have been pointed in many directions, but it is important for all of us to remember that the blame for this death lies squarely on the shoulders of the two individuals incarcerated for this act.

The neglect and abuse which caused the death of this 9-year-old boy from Arlington is unforgivable. I hope the individuals responsible are prosecuted to the fullest extent.

But we cannot let this tragedy pass without asking some very tough questions about how a system set up to protect Davontae Williams failed him.

On 6 occasions during his 9 years on this earth, a Child Protective Services agent investigated his home. Six times, there was an opportunity for justice. Yet six times, the lifeline slipped through the fingers of Davontae Williams.

Many are calling for an immediate increase to the number of caseworkers employed by CPS, our state watchdog agency charged with protecting children.

During the last legislative session, we increased the budget for CPS by $7.9 million despite enormous budgetary obstacles, allowing the agency to hire 178 new caseworkers. Even with those added caseworkers, each has a heavy workload. We need more caseworkers, but we also need systematic change as well.

Each caseworker has a notebook that is used to collect data in an investigation -- a series of questions to ensure that as much evidence as possible is gathered. This notebook doesn't need to be thicker, but it needs to be revised.

Lessons from the case of Davontae Williams must be incorporated, especially the issue of hiding from CPS. For two years, this case remained in the "whereabouts unknown" file when a check of a state database would have shown where the boy's mother was receiving her state assistance checks. Clearly, we need to require that a more thorough attempt be made to locate individuals under investigation by CPS who move without notice. There should be penalties for those same individuals who have neglected to inform CPS of their move.

And what about the schools? As a former teacher, it bothers me that there is no effective system in place to track students who are removed from the school system. Parents have the right to determine where their child is educated, but CPS needs to be alerted when children under investigation are removed from school.

Modern technology should be utilized to a greater extent to give caseworkers additional tools they need to track and protect children who have been assigned to them.

By and large, our CPS caseworkers are extremely well educated. All of them currently hold at least a bachelor's degree, and many have received their master's degree.

I have heard their stories, and some of the things they have seen in the trenches would tear your heart out. I can say with certainty that Texans should be grateful to have so many compassionate, dedicated and intelligent individuals fighting these battles.

But CPS should not be the first line of defense. It should be the last line of defense.

Unfortunately, we live in a time of great peril for our most vulnerable citizens --- our children. So it is incumbent upon all decent people to look out for children -- and not just our own.

Usually, there is at least one adult in a child's life who has the compassion and the guts to intervene if a child is being hurt. If I could pass one law to prevent another tragedy like this it would be to require that every child in Texas have one person who cares about that child's welfare, education and their future.

And in the case of Davontae Williams, the question needs to change from "How did this happen?" to "How do we prevent this from happening again?"

SENATOR JANE NELSON is Chairman of the Health & Human Services Committee, which is monitoring the ongoing state review of Child Protective Services. Senator Nelson represents District 12, which includes part of Tarrant and Denton counties.