CPS says child neglect is the top cause of death in most investigations

HOUSTON – The disappearance and presumed death of a 6-year-old Houston boy is the latest in an upward trend of child death cases across the state of Texas.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) reports that in 2020, there were more than 800 child death investigations, a 7% increase from 2019. However, Harris County reported 48 deaths in 2020, a 1% from the year before.

Those cases are investigated by caseworkers to determine whether a child’s death happened accidentally, or if foul play is suspected, such as the Samuel Olson case.

Law enforcement officers found a child’s body in a tote bag inside a Jasper motel room. The body is presumed to be that of Olson, but identification and cause of death are still being determined by the medical examiner.

However, the girlfriend of Olson’s father is now jailed and charged with tampering with evidence.

As the investigation continues in that case, other child death investigators are still on the ground reviewing other cases.

Investigating neglect and abuse

“Our cases that we get are priority cases, so we have to drop everything and go right away,” said Jennifer McNulty, a death investigator with DFPS.

McNulty is not investigating the Olson case but has handled child killings. Many of her cases are accidental deaths, like drownings, choking on food, and co-sleeping deaths. A department spokesperson said the majority of McNulty’s fatality cases are the result of neglect.

In 2020, neglectful supervision cases were reported more than any other form of abuse and neglect, according to the department.

There are seven investigators responsible for looking into child deaths in several counties in the southeast portion of the state, including Harris County. They are responsible for only investigating deaths, but there are things everyone can do to prevent abuse cases from escalating to death.

Every person has a duty to report suspected child abuse, according to DFPS. Signs of abuse and neglect can include obvious marks and bruises, unsafe situations without protection and unsanitary home conditions.

Regardless of the cause of death, McNulty is in charge of finding out if a family member is at fault and potentially step in to protect any other living children.

“We’re not out there to take people’s kids, we are literally just going out there to make sure these children are safe,” said McNulty.

If you suspect child abuse or neglect, you can report that to the department online or by calling the Texas Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400.

  • Telephone - You may call the Texas Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400 to report abuse or neglect. The hotline is answered by DFPS Intake Specialists (who are all degreed professionals) 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. You will be asked to provide your name and contact information. You will be asked to explain your concerns. The Intake Specialist might ask additional questions to determine if the situation that you describe meets the Texas Family Code’s definitions of abuse or neglect.
  • Internet - You may report your allegations to the Texas Abuse Hotline through the Internet at https://www.txabusehotline.org. This secure website provides a way to explain your concerns in writing. You must provide your name and a valid e-mail address. Your identity remains confidential and will not be provided directly to the accused person by any DFPS employee. Once an Intake Specialist processes your report, you will receive a confirmation e-mail with a Call Identification Number. The e-mail will also tell you whether or not your report was forwarded to a local DFPS office for further investigation.

Helping the families

In a recent case, McNulty interviewed a family after an infant died while sharing a bed with other family members.

Death investigators require all parents to take a drug test for their review. McNulty found the infant’s parents had issues with drug usage and called a family-based safety service caseworker.

Those caseworkers assess and recommend treatment options for the parents.

“My whole goal, especially for a grieving family, is to show compassion,” said Jaleesa Ross, a caseworker.

Ross found that the family was willing to take the necessary steps and believes they will be rejoined with their surviving children.

“They’ve matured through the process. It’s a great feeling,” said Ross.

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