AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A troubling spike in Texas foster care deaths due to abuse or neglect is "not acceptable" according to a new state safety plan released Friday in response to more foster mistreatment deaths in the past year than the previous four combined.
The Department of Family and Protective Service report calls for more training and more unannounced visits to foster homes. At least eight foster children in Texas died from abuse or neglect in the fiscal year that ended in August.
Spokesman Patrick Crimmins said Friday that number may increase to nine, and that last week's death of an 11-month-old girl near Austin will also likely be determined abuse. Investigators say the infant's skull was fractured, and a man has been charged with injury to the child in the death.
The number of deaths is a fourfold increase from two foster mistreatment deaths in 2012, and more than the five combined abuse or neglect deaths from fiscal years 2009 to 2012.
"It's really, really worrisome," Crimmins said.
He also said state child welfare officials have found no underlying cause that explains the increase. Seven of the eight confirmed mistreatment deaths in the past year were the result of neglectful supervision, according to the new report. That includes drownings, suicide and sleep-related deaths.
Ashley Harris, a former state child welfare caseworker who is now with the Austin-based nonprofit Texans Care for Children, testified in Washington this week during a congressional hearing on nationwide failures in the foster care system.
Harris said Friday she had not yet seen the state's new safety plan but blamed "chronic underfunding" on unmanageable state caseworker loads.
"Caseworkers are the people charged with protecting some of our most vulnerable children and should be provided a manageable caseload that ensures appropriate supervision that does not leave children at risk for further abuse and neglect and promotes the best outcomes for kids," Harris wrote in an email.
The Austin American-Statesman reported Friday that Jacob Salas, a 32-year-old suburban Austin man accused in last week's death of 11-month-old Orion Destiny Hamilton, had been investigated for child neglect allegations three times. Court records also show Salas wasn't supposed to be around the baby or his three biological children, according to the newspaper.
Salas is being held in the Williamson County jail without bail. Jail records show no information about whether he has an attorney.
Under the state's new foster system safety plan, child welfare workers will develop a "safety recognition card" to make sure they identify potential risks in the homes of children with exceptional medical needs. It also calls for amending agency rules to put limitation on the number of such children who can be placed in one home.
The agency says it will also produce quarterly trend reports on abuse and neglect deaths beginning in 2014.