The Chronicle follows two as they navigate challenges of protecting children
by Rebecca Elliott with Matt Dempsey
September 11, 2015; complete story and video available on the Houston Chronicle premium subscription website
Child Protective Service investigator Heather Pohl becomes familiar with a 2-year-old boy who was found walking by himself along a busy street.
Seated at the family's kitchen table, Heather Pohl starts asking questions.
Have you ever been involved with Child Protective Services? Tell me how you pronounce your last name? You have how many children?
Gradually, Pohl fades into the background as the mother and grandmother carry the conversation, reconstructing their family tree and the circumstances leading up to this visit.
The day before, their 2-year-old toddled out of the house and was found wandering three blocks away.
The Baytown women tell Pohl they are in the process of moving, to a neighboring street. The boy slipped out in the confusion, they explain, voices clambering over each other. Even when police officers arrived, asking after a missing boy, his mother was sure they had it wrong.
Pohl, a Texas CPS caseworker for 18 years, jots notes throughout an hour-long conversation, interjecting occasionally, calmly, before touring the two-story home.
She stops at the television – could the boy pull it from the stand, crushing himself? The bathtub – could he drown? The French doors – could he wander out into the road again, barefoot, cars whizzing past?
He wasn't injured last time, in those 30 minutes alone, but could he slip out again?
Is he safe living here?
That's the most important question.
Texas leads the nation in deaths due to child abuse or neglect, with the highest rate of fatalities from 2006 to 2013, the most recent year for which U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data is available.
In 2013, 150 kids died in Texas from maltreatment, a rate of 13 fatalities per 100,000 children, HHS data shows, although reporting standards vary across states.
After each high-profile death, CPS caseworkers come under fire, criticized for what they did or didn't do, what they should have known and everything they never asked.
In Harris County, the agency again drew scrutiny after the Aug. 8 massacre of a family of eight.
CPS had investigated each of the parents over the years, and in 2013, the state briefly removed the six children after one was repeatedly found wandering alone at night. However, a judge later ordered them to return home, and the agency closed the case. Its work is now being reviewed by the state's Office of Child Safety.
Yet fatalities comprise a fraction of CPS's caseload.
In fiscal year 2014, the agency investigated some 215,500 cases, about 27,400 of them in Harris County, according to the state Department of Family and Protective Services.
CPS confirmed abuse or neglect in nearly one out of four cases statewide, removing some 13,600 children from their homes.
Most of the time, though, casework is about keeping families together.
The Chronicle recently shadowed Harris County caseworkers on cases selected by CPS. The families involved could not be identified by name.
The cases illustrate the challenges of a profession that relies on instinct as much as hard facts. One that forces you to assess a stranger's parenting skills and decide whether that person could – inadvertently or willingly – harm his or her own child. One that can be surprisingly uneventful, except when it's not.
CPS caseworker Christina McKinney visits with a 6-year-old girl sent to live with her aunt temporarily during an ongoing investigation.
It was quiet, and clean, in the North Houston two-bedroom apartment when Christina McKinney stopped by.
McKinney had been working with this mother for nine months now, after the woman reportedly smoked marijuana with her youngest in the car, prompting CPS to take custody of her three girls.
Unlike Pohl, who investigates initial abuse and neglect complaints, McKinney is a temporary legal caregiver for children already in state custody. She visits with them, attends court hearings, finds substitute care and permanent placement.
McKinney's mission in these cases is to reunite families, unless, as the CPS handbook explains, "a court has determined that reunification efforts are not necessary due to aggravated circumstances."
This mother was on track, McKinney thought as she took notes in the living room, where a scented candle burned on the coffee table.
She said most of the right things about drugs and avoiding tempting situations – the ones that could prompt a relapse after four or five months clean.
"I don't do half the things I used to anymore," the mother said. "I really just work, come home to the kids, and not party."
She had stayed involved with her girls throughout their time away, paying frequent visits to the relatives' homes where they were staying.
The woman held her iPhone outstretched, showing off a recent video of her middle girl dancing to Silento's "Watch Me."
"Too funny," McKinney said.
The dimly lit apartment would be new to the children, but already their photos lined the bookshelves and adorned a wall. A room for the older ones awaited, complete with twin beds and matching brown and pink comforters.
Everything seemed good until the woman struggled to recall the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous – a group she had been ordered to attend.
She didn't know which steps she had completed, couldn't even remember the sequence.
Suspicious, McKinney thought.
That afternoon, she drove to pick up the woman's 6-year-old from kindergarten in the Alief Independent School District.
The "Watch Me" aficionado held McKinney's hand as she walked to the car in sparkly ballet shoes. She talked of her love for Shrek and strawberry cupcakes.
At her aunt's house, the girl read a Minnie Mouse book aloud to McKinney, sounding out the words haltingly. When she missed one, the caseworker whispered it in her ear.
Then McKinney fished through the girl's backpack, checking up on her homework.
They practiced counting from one to 100.
They licked blue lollipops.
McKinney asked about the girl's visits with her mom.
McKinney is 25, a native Texan who joined the agency three years ago. She watches over anywhere from 25-35 children and ushers them through the process of being in state custody, determining in consultation with her supervisor – and ultimately a judge – where to move them and when, which parents are ready to be caregivers again and which may not be.
"We're doing everything that a typical parent would be doing," McKinney said.
For her, this is a dream job.
Growing up in Godley, a small town south of Fort Worth, it seemed to her that foster homes were cropping up left and right.
On McKinney's block alone, there were three.
She watched as these new classmates moved to town and saw them treated differently than other children. It was heart-breaking.
So McKinney went to college for social work and then graduate school, before being hired by CPS in Travis and later Harris County.
Constantly, she's told she has what must be the worst job ever.
CPS is known for long hours, low pay and high stress, with about a quarter of the agency's staff turning over each year.
In fiscal year 2014, the average caseload ranged from 15.6 to 32.1 per day, depending on the position, and the starting salary was about $32,300, with supplements for investigative workers and those with graduate degrees.
This means McKinney receives about $2,200 a month after taxes, about three quarters of which goes to rent, car payments and student loans.
She's made it work, though it will be tough, someday, if she decides to have a family herself.
McKinney later rattles off the rewards that aren't on her paycheck – The long-time meth addict who got clean, so she could regain custody of her infant child (she still sends photos); the teenager who aged out of the system, about to start at Lone Star College; the man in the process of adopting two grandchildren after the state terminated their parents' rights.
"There are so many more good days than bad days," Pohl agreed.
Pohl, the investigative caseworker, joined CPS on a whim, after she tore a tab from a flyer advertising an agency internship on the West Coast.
The Houston native was finishing up her graduate degree in social work and had never been to California, so she picked the internship over potential positions in San Antonio public schools and Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
More than a year later, after a hiatus at a Montana ski resort, Pohl returned home and to CPS. She was hooked.
"Every day's different," Pohl said. "It's fulfilling. It's challenging. I'm good at it."
Earlier on, when she was in a role like McKinney's, Pohl dealt with families after tragedies.
One of the highest-profile cases of her career came in 2001, after an 8-year-old boy with cerebral palsy died in a Liberty County hospital. He had been beaten severely.
Joseph Beebe's death was eventually ruled a homicide by "battered child syndrome," and Pohl had to find new homes for his five special needs siblings, who were adopted, like Joseph. Many also had been abused, left with atrophied muscles and malformed bones. She looked after those children for seven years. One still calls her every Mother's Day.
For most of her years with the Texas agency, though, Pohl, 47, has been an abuse and neglect investigator, the post with the highest turnover.
Nobody's happy when she knocks on the door.
Sometimes, she asks police to come with her, and she once sat on someone's porch for a couple of hours before they would let her in. But she said she tries to be respectful, non-threatening.
Pohl likes listening. And she likes children, though she has none of her own.
When she was younger, Pohl was drawn to the work in part because she thought these kids needed to be rescued. It's not often that dramatic.
She finds joy in directing a family to resources they weren't aware of or in helping parents realize they aren't bad people, as they've been told.
"There aren't a lot of thanks that come with it, for the most part. But when I know that I've done a good job, that's satisfying."
In 18 years, Pohl has never looked for another role, not even within the agency.
Some days are still hard, though.
So much is riding on your decisions.
"You're always asking yourself," McKinney said, " 'Did I make the right choice?' "
As for her recent case, McKinney is in the process of closing the file after more than a year.
The mother was clean, working and attending therapy. She had steered clear of the children's fathers, neither of whom had made an effort to remain involved. When McKinney popped in twice a month, often with little warning, the house was orderly. The signs were there.
And so, on the middle girl's last day of kindergarten, the children moved back in with their mother. The final hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 23.
Pohl lets the doubts creep in less often.
Her cases are quick, usually 30 days, and then she moves on, to new families and more children. There's little time to second-guess.
In Baytown, she sat on a pink plastic step stool across from the 2-year-old boy, the little escape artist.
Before arriving, she had completed a series of family records checks: criminal background and Medicaid, followed by CPS history.
The grandmother had a minor drug charge from long ago; the dad, too, but nothing else. The agency had never been involved with the family.
Good signs, Pohl thought.
She tickled the boy as his older sisters played, eating popsicles with the juice dripping down their hands.
Pohl could see how others might be alarmed by the places she visits, with the layers of dust and worn furniture, some windows half-boarded up.
But, she would say, "you learn to kind of see through and past and around and over all of that kind of stuff." What you're looking for, she said, "is the real danger there."
It was clear the boy had indeed escaped, but Pohl was impressed with the mother's openness, the way she offered information unprompted. Her narrative about the confusion of moving seemed plausible.
Pohl left with the children's clothing sizes written in her notebook, a reason to return and check up on the family.
Three weeks and another visit later, Pohl closed the case.
She had listened. She had collected the data and talked to her boss. She had relied on her gut.
As always, it comes down to trust.