Did local police miss an opportunity to save two-year-old Colton Turner? New information shows Colton Turner was on local law enforcement's radar.
By law, CPS must notify local police when an abuse allegation is made. Austin, Cedar Park and Lakeway all received reports during Colton Turner's short life. Lakeway seems to be the only agency to have followed up.
"We take ownership. We could have done a better job of really assessing those reports as they come in," says Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.
In a candid interview, Acevedo and the man who heads up CPS, John Specia, together talked about the lessons learned from Turner's tragic death.
Acevedo was on-site when the little boy's remains were found buried in a shallow grave in East Austin last September. "I still remember being there on the scene when Colton Turner was unearthed," he says. "I'll never forget looking around and seeing a lot of grown men and women with tears in their eyes and they unwrapped that child."
CPS has repeatedly admitted to failing Colton Turner. And as other missed opportunities to intervene surface, much change, according to both men, has been born from this tragedy.
"Child abuse and neglect has to be a problem that everyone is aware of and we are working together to identify it and to prevent it help the families," says Specia.
That includes re-thinking the way law enforcement and the agency work together. "We have to look inward, outward, what was missed if anything and how can we take this precious life that was lost and make things better so we maximize the potential to keep these children out of harm's way," said Acevedo.
Part of that includes a CPS pilot program where abuse reports sent by the agency are reviewed by local child advocacy centers. Currently Austin Police receive dozens of those reports weekly, with only two to sift through them.
Having an additional resource to screen them, Specia says, will lighten the current load. "The child advocacy center is a great place because they can work together. Where we are co-located," he says. "We've got police investigators and especially trained forensic interviewers. That's where it works best."
Acevedo echoes the sentiment, "To have that triage in place to have that assistance going through those 75 reports. Prioritizing them, that's going to be huge."
The Center For Child Protection is that agency in Travis County. Nearly three-decades old, it too was sparked by another child tragedy. Like Colton Turner, Christopher Waller was the victim of abuse.
"We are that central hub where everybody can come through," explains The Center's Meagan Webb. All of the agencies come together and coordinate on an investigation.
Specia says there's also a push for caseworkers to forge more cohesive relationships with their local law enforcement agencies. "That will take away the intimidation. We need to provide venues where they get to know each other better and they can work together."
CPS has also started a joint training program with Austin Police where officers learn to spot signs of trafficking, abuse, and domestic violence. Since the first class, they have been successful. But they agree that much more needs to be done to get ahead of child abuse. "We have seven million children in Texas. There are 32 states that have less people than we have children so the job of protecting that many children in Texas is an awesome one," says Specia.
And they say prevention is key but it's vital everyone pitches in. "It's not just about the investigator, it's about the patrol officer and the community coming together saying we aren't going to tolerate it," says Acevedo.
During the interview, Chief Acevedo, like Commissioner Specia has in the past, talked about the need for more law enforcement involvement when it comes to serious cases of abuse and when it comes to finding kids. Kids who, like Colton Turner, ultimately fall off of CPS' radar.
Acevedo is publicly throwing his support behind Colton's Law (HB2053) which would immediately flag local and state law enforcement when children are unable to be located.
"The more eyes we have on these families that disappear - the greater chance we have of intervening on behalf of that child."
HB2053 has been referred to committee and is expected to have a hearing in the next few weeks.