Whistleblower lawsuit claims Child Abuse investigations are tainted
Sarah Brasse, 8, died in 2009 despite calls alerting CPS that she might be in danger.
A former employee of the state Office of Inspector General has filed a whistleblower lawsuit, charging he was fired for complaining about the agency’s flawed investigations of how other state agencies handle child deaths in Texas.
The OIG’s office is required to examine allegations of fraud, abuse and policy violations at state agencies, including Child Protective Services. It began looking into CPS cases in 2012, after a rash of children died at the hands of their caregivers.
It’s the same agency that recently concluded high-up managers at CPS weren’t at fault in the 2009 death of 8-year-old Sarah Brasse of Schertz — even though they failed to send anyone to check on the girl 48 hours before she died of untreated appendicitis.
That was despite calls to CPS from three professionals concerned that Sarah was in danger, the Express-News found in its investigation of CPS. The girl’s family had been investigated multiple times over two years by CPS and was under the agency’s watch when she died.
The lawsuit filed by Joe Carrizal Jr., who was fired in July, claims the OIG routinely performed inadequate investigations into CPS’ handling of child death cases in order to protect the agency rather than root out problems.
The suit, filed in Travis County district court against the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the OIG, said the lack of thorough investigations leaves “hundreds, if not thousands, of Texas children vulnerable to continued acts of abuse and neglect.”
Carrizal, who previously worked as a CPS special investigator, said OIG investigators’ hands were tied by a host of restrictions, such as not being able to interview witnesses, law enforcement, CPS personnel, the deceased child’s family members and others. It states they were “required” to do haphazard investigations to “cover up” CPS failings.
The suit delineates Carrizal’s history of making various complaints and recommendations to his OIG managers about problems he saw at the agency and the resulting alleged workplace retaliation he experienced — bad enough to cause him to file a civil rights complaint. Carrizal was ultimately fired for insubordination, which he denies committing.
Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman with the HHSC, said the lawsuit is “without merit.” “The notion that we didn’t want to uncover wrongdoing at CPS is completely absurd,” she said. “After all, it was the HHSC management that asked for (the child death reviews), to get to the bottom of problems at CPS.”
The OIG has so far reviewed some 200 child fatality cases where CPS was involved. Goodman said that early on there were problems with OIG inspectors not knowing how to focus their investigations. “Some were doing too cursory of reviews, some wanted to completely re-open CPS investigations, and that’s not our goal,” she said, adding that those issues have been resolved.
Carrizal said investigators were given simple checklists to do their reviews and were ordered only to review documents provided by CPS. “That was a huge concern for me,” he said. “CPS was the suspect of the investigation, and yet we were relying on the information provided by the suspect.” Carrizal said he provided evidence to his bosses showing potential criminal wrongdoing on the part of CPS, yet there was never any follow through. He’s is asking for compensation between $200,000 to $1 million.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of strong criticism of the OIG by the Sunset Advisory Commission, an independent body that conducts evaluations of state agencies. In its October report, the commission painted OIG as hobbled by poor management, inadequate communication, lack of transparency and other problems.
The OIG previously came under fire in 2013, when it found CPS didn’t err in the case of Orien Hamilton, an 11-month old who died of abuse in Cedar Park. After a story in the Austin American-Statesman questioned that finding, the OIG reopened the case. It later concluded a CPS case worker had violated state policies.
Carrizal’s lawsuit does not mention the Sarah Brasse case as an example of what he says is OIG malfeasance. In its two-page report on her case, the OIG found that four CPS workers failed to follow state policy, such as making timely home visits. But it didn’t recommend any disciplinary action and absolved managers who made the critical decision not to check on Sarah as she lay dying alone in her soiled bed. Also, allegations that these managers might have illegally altered state documents were not substantiated, according to the OIG.
Outraged by the lack of teeth in the report, state Sen. Carlos Uresti, who has taken a special interest in Sarah’s case, vowed to introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session that targets problems at CPS that may have played a role in her death. Uresti said in an emailed statement Thursday that he hopes the lawsuit will be used “as a catalyst to further review investigation protocols at the (OIG). While I hesitate to comment on a pending legal matter, based on my experience with the OIG’s investigation into the death of Sarah Brasse, I believe there is a lot of room for improvement on the thoroughness of their investigations.”
The state has 20 days to respond to Carrizal’s lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday.
The HHSC’s Goodman said the OIG tends to attract hard-nosed types who “sometimes don’t take management very well.” She suggested Carrizal “is the sort of employee who sees conspiracies where they simply don’t exist.”
Carrizal’s lawyer, Dominic Audino of Austin, said Carrizal is “one of those guys who doesn’t shy away when he sees something improper. And in this case, extremely improper things were being done, with people choosing their political careers over the lives of children.”
In learning of the lawsuit, Jo-Anne Guerrero, Sarah’s mother, who has fought relentlessly to get justice for her daughter, was elated. “I knew stuff wasn’t going on (at the OIG) was a farce. I am so grateful for this lawsuit.”