(Editor’s note: This story is the tenth part of a multi-part series “Stolen Innocence,” about children who have been victimized by abuse that began in Issue #1 and concludes in Issue #6. Several staff members took it upon themselves to interview, take photographs and conduct research. The results of their combined efforts follow.)
by: NICOLE TRUGILLO/Editor-in-Chief
Abuse is a powerful word.
So powerful that it can leave anyone physically, mentally, or emotionally damaged, especially when the abuse is coming from someone who is obligated to take care of the child.
Child Protective Services (CPS) is an agency that investigates reports of abuse and neglect of children, providing services to children and families in their own home, placing children in foster care when the family fails to take care of them, providing services to help youth in foster care, and placing children in adoptive homes.
“It’s an agency that protects the unprotected,” says Ali Heslin, case worker for CPS in Levelland. “It means that children that are being injured or harmed are the people that we serve.”
Heslin has been working with CPS for 16 years, and she is a Conservatorship Specialist (CVS). She is responsible for the child’s welfare.
“We have all kinds of tools to use, but I’m personally in the CVS department,” Heslin says. “I work with the children that are already in care. I work with the children that have already been removed. I work with the families and the children to address the needs and the issues that brought them into care, and help eliminate those issues to determine whether the child can be returned back home or needs to find a forever home somewhere else.”
According to Heslin, child abuse isn’t always abuse. It can be neglect, the failure to protect, or the action of abuse that can injure a child.
Heslin helps the families and children work through the process of making the child’s home a better place to live.
“For the parents, it may be coping skills, parental skills, or drug treatment, or mental health issues that may need to be dealt with,” explains Heslin. “There is a whole range of things that it could be. We have things that tell us, tools that tell us, like a physiological mind tell us that the mother may have been sexually abused and she couldn’t deal with her sexual abuse. Therefore, she couldn’t see or understand that her own children were being sexually abused.”
Heslin says that CPS has a statewide intake, and the reports go into one big warehouse, which is how they keep things consistent statewide.
“We have a 1-800 number,” says Haslin. “This is the number people call to turn in what they believe is child abuse. Those people who take the calls have supervisors in their units, and then that investigation is given a priority, like a priority one or priority two, or declined.”
Heslin explains that priority one is to be seen immediately, or within 24 hours.
“Once they say that the case has a priority, then it is trickled down to the region that it goes to,” explains Heslin.
According to Heslin, the court gives CPS a year to help the parents make sure their home is a safe place for their child.
“The courts are saying that we’re keeping the child in care too long,” explains Heslin. “So, the judge gives us one year to figure out a permanency plan for this child, and we should have that child somewhere where they can stay within that year.”
The courts can only give a one-time, six month extension if the parents prove they have changed their lifestyles.
“If [the parents] are working and making progress, then the judge can say that they can get that six-month extension,” says Heslin. “After those 18 months, it’s history. If you can’t get yourself together in 18 months, then the child needs another forever home. There is no sense keeping a child in foster care for longer months if we could be looking for a home that can last forever, because mom and dad can’t get themselves together. That’s a year and a half!”
CPS takes care of child from birth to age 18, but it can extend to 23 years old.
“If they choose extended care to make sure they get all the services they need,” explains Heslin, “and if the services are warranted for that child to remain in care until they are 23 years old.”
Heslin says they get phone calls all day, every day.
According to Heslin, helping the families doesn’t get harder for her. Instead, it gets easier.
“It doesn’t get harder,” says Heslin. “You’re doing it because you care, and so you can’t go in and work with families or children if you don’t care what happens to them. I think the most important thing that I see personally is we need people to call it in and let the professionals decide if it’s child abuse or not. If you have concerns for a child, you need to call it in.”
To report child abuse, anyone can contact the Texas abuse/neglect hotline at 1-800-252-5400.