Child Protective Services questioned after UT homicide

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AUSTIN (KXAN) –  One week ago Haruka Weiser disappeared. The 18-year-old Fine Arts major at UT never made it back to her dorm after leaving from class. Police found her body Tuesday morning on campus along Waller Creek.

Thursday officers arrested her accused killer,17-year-old Meechaiel Criner. We do not know when he’ll be appearing in court as there are no pre-trial hearings on the calendar.

We have learned his defense attorney is Ariel Payan. He’s represented two high profile capital murder suspects in the past – Mark Norwood and Brandon Daniel. Payan couldn’t tell us much this weekend when we talked to him. He said he has not met with Criner enough to release a statement. But we have heard from Criner’s grandmother and his sister.

Two weeks before he was booked into the Travis County Jail on a murder charge students and a faculty member tell KXAN Meechaiel Criner disappeared from the halls of Ellison High School in Killeen. It is the policy for CPS to notify local police anytime a child goes missing. His grandmother, who lives in Texarkana, says she had not heard from him in nearly a year.

“Until they dig into it and see what is what it is, it’s still hard for me to believe that he did that,” said Mary Wadley.

Police say surveillance video puts Criner in the right place at the right time. He was also found to have Haruka Weiser’s personal belongings in his possession. But Criner’s sister, a second year law student…says her brother is innocent.

“I am greatly deeply sorry that this happened. I’m deeply sorry but I assure you that my brother Meechaiel Criner did not do this,” said his sister, who chose not to be named for fear of retaliation. Criner is the youngest of five siblings born to a drug addict mother who committed suicide.

Growing up they bounced between their grandmother’s house and various foster homes. Criner’s family says he has a mental illness, and has been getting psychiatric help since he was a young child.

“As far as having a breakdown, a mental break anything and attack her, no..I dont see that. No, that’s unheard of,” said Wadley.

While Criner’s family questions whether or not Austin police have the right guy, they also have questions for child protective services.

“All I know is CPS was supposed to have had him because they said he wasn’t 18 yet,” said Wadley.

“How would you possibly let a 17-year-old mentally issued child out of your system for that long of a time?” said his sister.

A spokesperson from the DFPS says they cooperate with local authorities on all criminal cases but could not comment on this specific case.

This case comes at a time with Child Protective Services is under fire from the federal government.

Last December Federal District Judge Janice Jack gave a stern warning to CPS. They must fix the system now because the current one violates the individual rights of children in the system.

Her final conclusion was this:

Texas’s foster care system is broken and it has been that way for decades. It is broken for all stakeholders, including DFPS employees who are tasked with impossible workloads. Most importantly, though, it is broken for Texas’s PMC children, who almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered.

For the past two years, KXAN led investigations into cracks in the systems. We spoke to judges who decide where to send kids – back home, with a foster parent, or with a relative.

“The state of Texas is great. But it’s not a great parent,” said Travis County Judge Darlene Byrne.

She described how abused kids are rushed through the system because there’s not enough time or money to tackle their caseload.

“We definitely need more time. There’s no doubt about it. We need more time,” said Judge Byrne.

Judges in Travis County have around 18 minutes to decide a case, half the recommended average.

Last session state lawmakers pumped in more than $100 million dollars more to a strategy meant to improve child safety and neglect. The funding strategy is called Protect Children Through an Integrated Service Delivery System and its goal is specifically Reduce Child Abuse/Neglect and Mitigate Its Effect.

For a full breakdown of the state’s budget for the Department of Family and Protective Services go here. 

The state has now appealed that ruling. The Texas attorney general said it was a misguided takeover of the foster care system.

“The court’s injunction raises serious federalism concerns because it attempts to wrest control of the Texas foster-care system from the State’s elected representatives, executive officers, and judges,” said state lawyers.

As part of that ruling, the judge appointed two experts in child welfare to revamp the system. That work started working last week.

The two experts have extensive backgrounds working with child welfare and the system itself. Kevin Ryan used to serve as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Children and Families. He now runs an organization focused on ending homelessness among young people. Francis McGovern teaches law at Duke University. She co-edited a handbook the judge used when writing her opinion Texas’ system was broken. They have until October 1st to draw up their plan to fix the problems.

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