Enforcement of Child Abuse in Austin: Not a Priority
Institutions vital to child protection in Austin are seriously understaffed.
It’s getting easier to abuse or molest a child in Austin and get away with it. Key elements of the criminal justice system and child protection system that used to serve as a check on abusers are under strain amid a mix of policy changes and staff shortages.
Turnover at the child abuse unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s office was 100% last year, according to a report in The Washington Post, which embedded a reporter with chief prosecutor José Garza last year.
Citing “internal dissension” in the unit, the Post reported that six of the nine lawyers and the division chief quit, and two lawyers were fired.
Not surprisingly, Travis County prosecutors secured fewer convictions in abuse cases. The number of jail or prison sentences handed down for indecency or sexual assault of a minor dropped from 76 in 2019 to 39 in 2020 and 28 in 2021. New indictments dropped from 230 in 2019 to 154 in 2020 to 102 in 2021, according to Travis County court data.
That’s in spite of more reports of sexual abuse of children. There were 1,417 sexual abuse cases in 2021, an increase of 20.8% from 2020 and 5.8% from 2019, according to data from Child Protective Services (CPS) investigations.
That increase is particularly eye-popping because reports of child abuse and neglect dropped overall when the pandemic hit. Advocates say that fewer cases of child abuse were being reported because children had less contact with mandatory reporters like teachers, coaches, and medical professionals.
CPS also conducted more sex trafficking investigations in Travis County last year, 28, compared to 19 in 2020 and 18 in 2019.
Similarly, the Austin Police Department reported 377 fondling cases in 2021, up from 300 in 2020.
Investigations and Compliance Understaffed
Unfortunately, Texas’ child protection agency has been plagued by staff shortages and high turnover rates for years. In 2020, CPS investigation workers had a turnover rate 26.9%. That makes it harder to be sure that abuse investigators are property trained and have the experience needed to know how to handle a case.
Another gap in the system is emerging as a result of the staffing cuts and high vacancy rate at the Austin Police Department (APD), which was caused in part by a council-mandated freeze on hiring and training new cadets.
APD leadership have been moving officers from specialized units to patrol units to control rising response times to the most urgent category of 9–1–1 calls. When patrol units are understaffed, it makes it difficult for officers to arrive on the scene of a shooting or other critical incident on time.
Three officers from the sex offender unit, known as Sex Offender Apprehension and Registry (SOAR), have been moved to patrol because of shortages. Chief Joe Chacon told KXAN last week that the change leaves the department with “diminished capacity on the active compliance checks to go out into the field and proactively check.”
Allison Franklin, an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, said the lack of compliance checks could make it easier for offenders to re-offend. There are about 1,600 registered sex offenders in Austin, according to the state’s sex offender database.
APD could try to fill the gap by hiring more civilian workers to conduct the compliance checks, but critics have expressed concerns that the work, for now, is not getting done. The SOAR unit now has four officers, one full-time civilian employee, and two part-time employees, according to an APD spokesperson.
The best way to deal with child abuse is to prevent it in the first place. Training can help caregivers and parents to understand the signs of grooming and potential or actual abuse. Schools and the private sector have a role to play.
But the government is meant to administer justice in cases where offenders are caught. It also has to ensure that victims aren’t left in abusive situations. If necessary, it has the authority to remove children from those situations and place them with kin or foster care if necessary.
When government fails to fulfill these core responsibilities, child molesters get off the hook and continue offending. The lack of case workers, investigators, police, and prosecutors in Austin virtually ensures that outcome.
Austin’s reputation as family-friendly was already on the rocks in recent years as housing costs soared and the public school system struggled financially and academically. Bad traffic and a record homicide rate aren’t helping either.
Now add this to the list: child-molester friendly.
Originally published at https://www.honestaustin.com on January 26, 2022.