December 21, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
In many ways, federal District Judge Janis Jack’s order placing some of the operations of Texas’ Child Protective Services under the control of a special master will be beneficial for the state’s children. Her order requires CPS to drastically reduce caseloads and turnover of caseworkers. The special master will investigate group homes and decide if they should be reformed or scrapped altogether. Under her order, the state will be required to track abuse of children by other children in foster care. Those and many other reforms mandated by Jack are much needed and long overdue.
Now, as I wrote yesterday, none of that will come without hefty new costs to a state that’s loathe to spend on social programs for its citizens, even those who are most vulnerable. If the Texas Legislature were enthusiastic about spending to protect kids, it would have taken some of the obvious steps ordered by Jack many years ago. But it hasn’t. It took an expensive lawsuit and an injunction issued by a federal judge to get the state’s attention, and it still hasn’t done much to improve the way it handles abused and neglected kids.
As I said yesterday, don’t be surprised to see the legislature resisting the demands of Judge Jack and whomever she appoints as special master. For one thing, caseloads for Texas caseworkers can run as high as twice the industry average. To bring those caseloads down to manageable levels may require thousands of new hires.
But doing so wouldn’t do nearly enough to address the astonishing turnover of caseworkers at CPS. As things stand now, the state pays near the bottom of the range for new caseworkers and then saddles them with far more than they can do. Add the agency-wide confusion about just what CPS policy consists of and caseworker for Texas CPS is one of the worst jobs in the field. For anyone truly interested in children’s welfare, such a job is little more than a stopover while waiting for something better to come along. Unsurprisingly, CPS experiences a whopping 26% turnover rate among caseworkers.
So, while hiring more caseworkers and reducing caseloads will help to reduce turnover, the state will also have to increase starting salaries to attract and keep qualified personnel. That’s another huge expense.
That, I predict, means that Texas will do everything in its power to continue to keep CPS costs as low as possible and sell children short in the process. We’ll see, but the Lone Star State has long prided itself on being anti-federal power, so being told what to do by an unelected federal official won’t sit well with those who hold the purse strings in Austin.
In short, I predict a long and difficult road for Judge Jack’s order.
But what if I’m wrong? What if the state budgets the necessary money and complies with the order and the mandates of the special master? It’ll unquestionably be good for Texas’ children. Each kid will receive the attention of a caseworker that’s necessary to evaluate the child’s needs, do appropriate follow-up and make accurate decisions based on the child in question. With more time to devote to each child and each family, caseworkers will make better decisions. That much seems clear.
But, as I mentioned yesterday, the same incentives will remain. The federal government will go on offering states hefty checks for every child taken from its parents and additional funds for children adopted out of foster care.
The point being that, Judge Jack’s order is aimed at doing what CPS has always done, only better. There’s nothing in the order - and the special master will have no power - to reform the agency in any other way.
As needed as more and better caseworkers are, they’re far from the last word in CPS reform. On the contrary, what’s needed is a thoroughgoing reevaluation of what child welfare is all about. CPS agencies across the country need to reorient themselves in the direction of providing services to biological families where possible. They must de-emphasize taking children from parents, de-emphasize foster care and try to help biological parents do a better job of caring for their kids.
Yes, some parents are lost causes, so some form of foster care is necessary. But to a great degree, biological parents do a better job of caring for their children than does anyone else. And of course avoiding the trauma of taking children from their homes and parents by itself goes a long way toward promoting children’s welfare both long- and short-term.
Difficult as it may be to accomplish, that type of basic reorientation of how CPS does its job of protecting children cannot and will not be done via a court order and the dictates of a special master. Again, Judge’ Jack’s order will accomplish many good and necessary things and many children stand to be helped by it (if the state complies). But what it won’t do is the type of root and branch reform of CPS that’s ultimately necessary to do what’s best for children at risk.
What it will do — all that it will do — is improve on CPS as it is now. My guess is that it’s a short-term fix that will result in long-term delays in doing the right thing for kids. That would mean keeping most kids at home and offering services to parents who need them. That’s the type of fix that can only come about with the help of the legislature and effective, visionary leadership of the agency. It’s something no lawsuit can bring about. And of course, this one hasn’t.
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