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September 27th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Just in case you thought Arizona was the only state with serious problems in its child welfare agency, think again.  Texas too is experiencing huge case backlogs due to too few caseworkers who are quitting faster than the state can hire them.  Read about it here (Austin American-Statesman, 9/22/12).

The situation in Arizona is probably worse than the one in Texas, at least so far.  But when it comes to skimping on state expenditures, Texas takes a backseat to no one.  The unsurprising result is that child welfare workers are paid too little and worked too hard at a job few want.  Caseworkers daily see some of the worst human misery this country has to offer, and much of it is suffered by it’s most vulnerable people, its children.  If that sounds like a fun job, consider the fact that caseworkers are so overworked that they often come to view children, not as the defenseless beings they are, but as files to be closed and forgotten about.  Then there’s the fact that, in most jobs, if you make a mistake, your boss might get mad and you might even get an unflattering letter stuck in your file.  But if a CPS worker errs, a child may be seriously injured or even killed.  For all that, starting caseworkers get paid a little over $2,600 per month.  Who would sign up for any of that?  So it’s no surprise that in Texas, as in Arizona, caseworkers are quitting faster than they can be hired.

And that of course means the ones still on the job have even more to do than before.  Case backlogs became so severe in several central Texas counties that the Department of Health and Human Services hit on a novel solution.  It temporarily transferred caseworkers from two large counties, Dallas and Harris (Houston) to pick up the slack in those overburdened counties.  Guess what happened.  That’s right, Dallas and Harris counties developed backlogs due to the lack of caseworkers.  It’s like a restaurant owner who has more customers than he can seat, so he moves some chairs from one room to another and wonders why there are still people standing around.

To deal with massive backlogs in Travis, Midland and Ector counties, Child Protective Services sent veteran caseworkers from Dallas and Houston to assist those counties with unresolved cases left open for months, the Houston Chronicle reported last week. The Chronicle reported that while delinquent cases in Travis County dropped, from about 65 percent to 44 percent, the numbers for delinquent child abuse investigation cases in Harris County jumped, to 1,470 cases, about 270 more delinquent cases than the county had a year ago before caseworkers were dispatched to other counties.

Truly, you can’t make this stuff up.  It’d be funny if we weren’t talking about abused and neglected children.

Even with improvement, Travis County’s [Austin] backlog remains among the highest in the state, a CPS official told us. As of last month, Travis County still is trying to close 655 cases, down from over 1,200. But there is a continuing influx so progress is slow. And other Central Texas counties, such as Williamson with about a 50 percent delinquent rate, and Hays with a 43.5 percent delinquent rate, are also at chronic levels. And the workload for frontline CPS investigators in Region 7, which includes Travis, Williamson, Hays and Bastrop counties, is the highest in the state, averaging 31.4 cases per worker. Such pressures help explain why people bail out or burn out so quickly.

The problem of backlogs, however, is statewide. The Chronicle reported that “in almost half the counties in Texas, one-third of the cases CPS investigators are handling are ‘delinquent.’”

Just like in Arizona, the inability to hire qualified caseworkers faster than existing ones quit means that caseloads build up and up, increasing the likelihood that still more will look for work elsewhere.  In Arizona, that has become a self-perpetuating process that worsens with time and it threatens to do the same in the Lone Star State.

[T]he system is broken because caseworkers are leaving the agency faster than CPS can hire them. When they leave, their cases are assigned to remaining caseworkers. So the workload for them quickly piles up to unmanageable levels.

“The link between turnover, caseloads and backlogged cases is direct and it can become a cycle,” [CPS spokesman Patrick] Crimmins said. “That is what we are seeing.”

In August, for instance, CPS hired 65 investigators, but Crimmins said 73 workers left CPS that month. There are clues in a state survey of people who left CPS jobs about why turnover is so high. The top reasons given are: working conditions (about 24 percent cited that); retirement (16.2 percent); and jobs that paid better (13.2 percent).

The root of the problem (that CPS didn’t create and can’t solve) is in single-parent childbearing and poverty which, more and more, are the same thing.  States’ throwing ever larger amounts of tax dollars into child welfare agencies to hire ever more caseworkers and pay ever more foster parents is absurd but necessary.  It’ll continue to be as long as we buy into the long-disproved notion that single-parent child rearing is as good as the two-parent kind.  We know it’s not, but lift nary a finger to do anything about it.

What should be done has nothing to do with forcing people to marry.  We should start from early childhood teaching children the value – no, the necessity – of having two biological parents to raise children.  That means both must commit to the child for the long term.  If divorce is necessary, neither parent should be pushed out of the child’s life either by the other parent or by a court.  Girls should learn early on that it’s not OK to become pregnant without the father’s knowledge.  Boys should be taught that they have equal responsibility for the care and support of children.  And both sexes should be taught to use contraception unless they’re ready and able to care properly for a child.

But of course we’re light years away from a public policy that sensible.  So we’ll go on pouring money into dysfunctional child welfare agencies and foster care in the vain hope that in some way we’re doing children some good.  Just because doing so is, in the absence of sane policy, necessary, doesn’t mean it makes sense.

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