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DALLAS – The child-protection system in Texas should be revamped to better monitor adoptions and prevent a reoccurrence of the seven special-needs children found near Houston isolated and living in filthy conditions, child advocates say.
Authorities have described the discovery last month of the disabled adopted teenagers as "heartbreaking," detailing an oppressive existence in which they were kept in a bedroom, fed two daily meals of rice and beans and disciplined for things like making too much noise. Their room was fouled by human waste and one boy with Down syndrome was found wearing a soiled diaper. None attended school.
Already, Gov. Greg Abbott, lawmakers, experts and advocates have said the troubled, understaffed Child Protective Services' agency is in need of a broader overhaul, with the Legislature giving it nearly $150 million in special emergency funding to hire 800 workers. That could close a hole in oversight revealed by the Houston-area case, as state caseworkers don't do follow-up visits once an adoption is completed unless a complaint is lodged.
The case wasn't publicized until Monday, with officials saying detectives needed time to pursue a complicated investigation. The Nov. 22 discovery of the teens — ages 14 to 16 — was shocking to the community of Richmond, which is southwest of Houston, according to Ruthanne Mefford, chief executive of Child Advocates of Fort Bend.
"If we're going to prevent this in the future we need to think about a system-wide program where we can ensure children are protected and safe, even when the adoption closes," Mefford said.
Mefford's agency interviewed the teens after they were removed from the home and will represent them as the case proceeds against the two people arrested in the matter — their adoptive mother, Paula Sinclair, and husband Allen Richardson, 78.
Sinclair and a former husband adopted the children in 2003 and 2004 and had been their foster parents, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services spokeswoman Tiffani Butler said.
CPS went to the home in 2011 when a 7-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who was blind and mute died there. Authorities ruled the death a result of natural causes. After that, caseworkers didn't visit until one received a tip last month.
Butler said caseworkers normally would not visit a home once an adoption is completed unless they receive a complaint of abuse or neglect — something Mefford believes needs to change. She wants to see mandated, periodic visits to adoptive homes.
"One of the things that is a red flag is that these children never went to school," she said.
She also wants a child-protection network as a continuing resource to parents, a notion supported by Dimple Patel, a senior policy analyst for The Texas Association for the Protection of Children, a nonpartisan agency that works to prevent abuse.
"I don't think we spend enough time with families after adoption," said Patel, noting that disruptions can arise years after an adoption is completed.
She adds that CPS, which is beset by low morale and high turnover, needs to have seasoned workers with manageable workloads who are skilled in doing investigations.
Sinclair and Richardson are jailed in Fort Bend County; records don't indicate whether they have attorneys. A 2007 Houston Chronicle story shows Sinclair started a charity to raise money for the children's care. It lost its nonprofit status in 2012 after failing to file required forms.
"I just couldn't see these children doing well in the foster care system, because they were so badly injured and had so many special needs," she told the newspaper. "I feel like this is what God called me to do — to take care of these babies."