"A lot of the decisions people make about their kids are serious, and I firmly believe that being educated with accurate information -- and that is the key here, because we provide accurate information, because we are all very experienced in this field … we all know what we are talking about here -- I believe that really empowers families to make the best choices for their own kids," said Crystal Leff-Piñon, Managing Attorney of Texas Legal Service Center's Family Helpline. The Helpline is a relatively new service, begun in 2017, and funded by the Children's Commission of the Supreme Court, the Children's Justice Act, and the Texas Access to Justice foundation. It is designed to provide legal information to those people involved in Child Protective Services (CPS) cases who do not qualify for free legal representation. The Helpline is staffed by six attorneys who all have experience dealing with CPS cases, according to Leff-Piñon. "Every attorney on our line has litigated CPS cases in court," she said. Anyone, regardless of income, can call and speak to an attorney, though most callers have been parents in the past. The service is information only; the attorneys do not represent clients in court and they do not, therefore, form an attorney - client relationship with the caller. Callers remain anonymous. The phone number is (844) 888-6565. Leff-Piñon says the intake process takes "less than five minutes." The line is open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm Mon. through Fri.
"CPS handles at least 100,000 cases of abuse or neglect every year. A significant portion of these families, the cases never go to court, so these families are not entitled to free legal representation … if someone is accused of something, CPS steps in and investigates, and the cases can go in a lot of different branches, depending on what CPS finds," said Leff-Piñon. In the most serious cases, CPS goes to court to obtain an order removing the child from the home. With the case in court, an indigent parent becomes eligible for free legal representation. Most CPS cases, however, do not involve a court. The parents enter into voluntary agreements with CPS to perform actions to keep the family intact while ending the activity that resulted in the initial complaint. In 2018, there were 143 CPS investigations in Moore County. Out of all these cases, twelve children were legally removed from a family. "I used to be a prosecutor before this and used to represent CPS in court cases. A lot of times, I was getting cases, and families were making decisions out of fear and misinformation. Sometimes people make snap decisions … there is a need for information. We can walk a person through the process, what CPS's expectations and requirements are, what the person's rights are … informing families about the process and the law, so they are not so lost."
While most of the people that the attorneys of the Helpline speak to are parents, Leff-Piñon says they do speak to relatives, family friends, and others who have some stake in the case. The attorneys can answer questions about everything from drug testing to custody orders and placing a child with a relative, among other things. "Child welfare law is massive. We have talked with people about over a hundred different issues," she said. Callers can speak to an attorney for as long as necessary and call back as often as necessary. If they wish, they can speak to the same attorney each time. Callers can leave a message during times when the line is closed, and Leff-Piñon says they will be returned as soon as possible.