The recent case of 17-year-old Meechaiel Khalil Criner, who was arrested by Austin police April 7 and charged with the murder of 18-year-old University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, has brought to light severe insufficiencies in the Child Protective Service’s foster care program in Central Texas.
The Killeen Police Department verified Criner ran away from a foster facility in Killeen on March 24, less than two weeks before he was arrested on the charge. KPD said they would not release Criner’s runaway report citing juvenile confidentiality laws and an ongoing investigation as police are trying to retrace Criner’s steps in the months and weeks he spent in Killeen and Austin.
According to court documents obtained by the Herald, Criner has been in and out of Texas’ CPS system for more than a decade, bouncing back and forth between family members in Texarkana and state foster care facilities after the state of Texas removed Criner from his mother’s care in 2001. In 2009, the documents show Criner was removed from his maternal grandmother’s home after she was arrested for allegedly striking Criner in the face with a belt, causing both of the then-10-year-old’s eyes to swell shut.
As a result of that incident, by August 2010, Criner was placed by the state with his maternal aunt, who was given custody of Criner in Texarkana. Although much of Criner’s CPS history is confidential, masking the time Criner spent in Texas between 2010 and 2015, at some point in that five-year span, Criner moved back in with his grandmother as the Associated Press reported Criner hitchhiked more than 300 miles in August from his grandmother’s home in Texarkana to Austin. According to court records obtained by the AP, Criner’s maternal grandmother kicked him out because her religious beliefs instructed teens Criner’s age to “make their own way in the world.”
Newspaper report: Criner attended EHS
Although the Killeen Independent School District would not confirm whether Criner had been a student there, the Austin-American Statesman reported Criner attended Ellison High School in 2015 and spoke to an unnamed teacher in an email. The teacher said Texas’ CPS system failed Criner.
“He was abused as a child and abused within the Texas foster care system,” the teacher wrote in an email to the Statesman. “I don’t know what help is available for Mick (Criner) but he needs help. I had extensive conversations with him on an almost daily basis and he wrote about his past in some assignments in my class. Everyone is going to want to hang Mick but he is mentally ill and he wasn’t being treated.”
The Statesman said Criner was reported missing from a “therapeutic foster home” in Killeen.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, or DFPS, doesn’t license many foster homes, a job reserved more for Child Placing Agencies or Residential Child Care Licensing, Julie Moody, a DFPS spokeswoman, told the Herald. In the month of March 2016, Bell County had 35 DFPS homes and 200 Child Placing Agency homes to serve 563 children under the age of 18 currently in the CPS system. There are five DFPS licensed homes and 16 Child Placing Agency homes in Coryell County to care for 103 children.
DFPS homes are considered to be ones which provide 24-hour care for six or fewer children under 18 or a foster group home, which provides 24-hour care for seven to 12 children under 18, according to the Texas DFPS website, www.dfps.state.tx.us. Child placing agencies are persons or organizations other than a child’s natural parent or guardian who plan for or place a child in a child care operation, foster home or adoptive home. General residential operations provide 24-hour care for 13 or more children under 18 and may offer services such as transitional living, emergency care or offer treatment for emotional disorders or primary medical needs. Residential treatment centers, such as Cedar Crest Hospital and Residential Treatment Center in Killen, are a subset of group residential operations that serve only children needing treatment for emotional disorders — such as the disorders attributed to Criner by his grandmother in an April 8 interview with news station KSLA in Shreveport, La.
“Each home is licensed depending upon how many bedrooms and beds/bathrooms (they have), so a small home or apartment may only allow one or two foster children to stay versus a four-bedroom home with bunk beds. That foster home may be licensed to care for more,” Moody said. “Each home is different. Each home’s capacity is determined by how big the home or apartment is and of course how many children foster parents would like to care for. For example, a family may be licensed and have the capacity to care for three children, but the family may prefer to only care for one or two at a time ... but no more than three.”
Licensing of homes
Foster homes are licensed based on the type of care they can provide, such as basic, moderate, specialized or intense care, she said.
“So basic care they go through the basic training. Moderate care, they may attend more training to help them deal with the complex issues our children face. (But) most specialized or intense care is done at residential treatment centers and or psychiatric hospitals or facilities,” Moody said.
Children with mental, physical or behavioral problems are usually housed at residential treatment centers for specialized or intense care, she added.
According to budget information on the Texas DFPS website, nearly $100 million was budgeted for 2016 for residential treatment centers and general residential operation treatment for emotional disorders. An additional $5.7 million was budgeted for the intensive psychiatric transition program.
While the numbers could not be broken down further due to medical confidentiality laws, CPS had 31,197 children in the department’s care at one time or another during 2015, Moody said.
“Not all our children have mental, physical or behavioral problems, but children who have been abused and neglected have experienced unspeakable trauma and require therapy to help them understand what has happened in their young lives,” she said.
Residential Child Care Licensing in Region 7, which includes Bell and Coryell Counties, is responsible for investigating foster homes for potential abuse or neglect of children in the foster system, Moody said. The organization investigated 771 non-abuse/neglect allegations and 266 for abuse/neglect in the region during 2015.
Depending upon the outcome of the investigation, the agency who licensed the home may be validated.
“If, for example, there was a child death in a foster home and the death of the child was due to abuse or neglect, that home would could be closed,” she said.
No foster homes in Region 7 were closed in 2015. Five homes, however, were put on corrective action by Residential Child Care Licensing. Corrective action includes additional training and visits by the organization to ensure child safety, Moody added. Depending on the situation, but often when there is an incident, Residential Child Care Licensing will assess the safety of the children during an ongoing investigation and place them in another home pending the outcome.
Urgent need for more foster homes
The need for additional foster homes to care for children in the CPS system within Bell and Coryell Counties is great, Moody said.
“Please, we need more foster homes in the Bell (and) Coryell county area. If someone is interested in becoming a foster parent, please have your readers go online for more information,” she said.
Information on how to become a foster can be found at www.dfps.state.tx.us/Adoption_and_Foster_Care/Get_Started/steps.asp.