And the beat goes on. This article tells us that the new director of Child Protective Services in Texas testified before the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee recently begging for more money for the embattled agency (Dallas Morning News, 2/11/13).
As in so many other states, Texas seeks to pay its child welfare caseworkers too little, train them too little and then hand them one of the toughest jobs anyone will ever try to do. Then there’s a huge outcry when they do a lousy job, which they predictably do. Don’t believe me? It seems that 212 kids died last year in the Lone Star State of abuse or neglect. Many of those of course were well known to Child Protective Services, but didn’t get the help they needed. That’s surely due at least in part to the dysfunctional nature of the agency that’s supposed to protect them.
Try a few facts on for size. Last year, CPS had a whopping 37% turnover rate in new caseworkers. Amazing as that is, it had a 34% turnover rate for all caseworkers new and experienced.
“It’s real hard to run a railroad with 37 percent turnover,” he said, referring to last year’s attrition rate among rookie investigators in Child Protective Services. “I’ve basically got workers voting with their feet.”…No wonder so many caseworkers quit. No wonder so many children die. Overworked and underpaid 25-year-olds being promoted to supervisor with only 18 months on the job is an ironclad guarantee that one of the most important jobs in the state will be done badly or not at all. Who in the world would want a job that pays little but asks an inexperienced employee to decide whether to break up a family or not. Not doing so may mean injury or death to a child. Doing so means emotional trauma to the child and the parents with no guarantee that things will be better in foster care. Indeed, research shows that, even when compared to parents who are somewhat abusive to their children, foster care is a bad bet. So what’s a kid just out of college to do? For that matter, what’s an experienced caseworker to do?
Among all child abuse investigators, 34 percent quit last year. And turnover was about 25 percent among other types of CPS workers overseeing children in foster care and dealing with families to prevent state removal of children…
“My workers, those mostly 25- and 26-year-olds, are making life-and-death decisions,” he said. “If they care … and they’ve got just a completely unreasonable workload, you can’t pay them enough” to keep them, he said.
Specia said in some cases, investigators with only 18 months’ experience have been promoted to supervisor, in charge of six rookies.
Add to the inherent difficulties of the job the fact that caseloads are routinely 50% higher than industry standards, and a lot of those employees are looking for different work from Day 1. Wouldn’t you?
All that plus low pay means Texas finds itself where a lot of other states do. The loss of employees means increased caseloads. Increased caseloads means poorer decision making. Poorer decision making means more children left in homes who shouldn’t be and more children placed in foster care who also shouldn’t be. All of that means more caseworkers “voting with their feet.” And that means higher caseloads for those who remain behind. It’s a never-ending cycle that only gets worse with time.
New department head John Specia wants a lot more money to try to stem the tide of fleeing employees and injured children. His department’s budget now is about $1.4 billion annually and he wants to increase that by $264 million. That’s a good idea, but it’ll be a long time before it’ll make much of a change even if the notoriously tight-fisted state legislature gives it to him, which few believe it will.
As with many states, Texas’ problems are of its own making. It spends far too much on foster care and far too little on getting parents the help they need to be better parents than they are. As those who follow the follies and fortunes of child welfare agencies across the country have often said, it’s both better for children and cheaper to redirect resources away from foster care and toward parental services for parents.
In the first place, foster care is often worse than even bad parental care, and that’s if the child is placed in a one-child home. All too often, they’re placed in group homes that are notorious for abusing children. But even if no child were ever harmed in foster care, there’s the problem of “aging out of the system.” At age 18, state funds to the foster parents stop and the child is on his/her own. What might astonish lawmakers is the fact that most of those kids return to their biological families. Maybe they should have been left there in the first place.
The simple truth is that anyone with the requisite biological apparatus can become a parent, but we do precious little to educate them about parenting. What are good parenting practices and what aren’t are mostly left up to the parents. Often as not, they parent the way they were parented, and if those methods were bad for the child, so be it.
Likewise, many parents with limited resources and a special needs child often don’t know where to go to get help or what that help needs to consist of. A little direction from a child welfare caseworker could go a long way toward solving those problems and keeping the child in its family. That’s the sort of approach that can save families, ease the burden on the state treasury and benefit children.
But all too often, harried caseworkers have neither the time the resources nor the imagination to take that constructive approach to the problem of children and parents. It’s far easier to put the child in foster care and move on to the next case. That’s a prescription for a dysfunctional system that costs too much, does too little and does what it does haphazardly, badly and not infrequently, criminally.
That last of course is a reference to the Abilene Child Protective Services being investigated by a special prosecutor for letting children die and then covering up agency malfeasance.
The beat indeed goes on. More money may help in the short run, but ever-increasing state intervention into family life will again outstrip its ability to pay, and the cycle of incompetence will begin again, if it ever stopped. There’s a way out of this, but it requires leadership and vision to accomplish. If anyone’s showing either in Texas, I sure haven’t seen it.