July 7, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The State of Texas has yet another Commissioner of its Department of Family and Protective Services that oversees Child Protective Services. He’s been on the job for only about two months, and the early returns aren’t good, at least if this interview is any indication (Texas Tribune, 7/6/16).
Hank Whitman is the third such commissioner in as many years and it’s anyone’s guess as to why Governor Greg Abbott appointed him. Whitman’s last job was as head of the Texas Rangers (the law enforcement agency, not the baseball team). He has no background in children’s welfare and comes to the job knowing essentially nothing about the agency that employs some 13,000 people, has a budget of over $3 billion per year and some 40,000 kids in its care at any given time.
The last time I wrote on the trials and tribulations of the DFPS, it was to report that, against all that is sensible, CPS was actually lowering its educational standards for caseworkers – and doing so drastically. Texas pays its child protective caseworkers as poorly as any state in the nation, with the unsurprising result that they don’t stay around long. Two years ago, an audit of the agency by the Stephen Group revealed a yearly turnover rate of CPS personnel of about 26%.
So the agency was in desperate need of retaining what employees it had. But instead of bringing salaries up to the level of education the caseworkers had, it instead lowered the educational standards for caseworkers to meet the woeful pay. In May, CPS announced that it would begin employing applicants whose top educational achievement is a high school diploma. If there’s a clearer indication of the disdain Texas has for its most vulnerable citizens, I haven’t seen it.
So now the state has a man heading the department whose knowledge of children’s welfare and the agency itself is deficient.
That said, Whitman grasps one thing – the need for more money. Of course ever-increasing budgets scarcely guarantee better child safety, but leaving wage rates as they are does guarantee that a terrible situation won’t improve and may get worse. So, whatever else may be true, Whitman is at least going to ask legislators for significant budgetary increases with which to pay caseworkers better.
Still, his responses to questions by the Tribune reveal a man who knows little about his current job.
There are several issues confronting the DFPS that loom larger than others. Those include caseworker turnover and retention of veteran staff, too-large caseloads, increasing the number of qualified foster care homes and coming to grips with the order issued by Federal Judge Janis Jack appointing two special masters to give recommendations about how to improve the state’s foster care system that Jack found to damage children more than did the abusive families from which they were taken.
Let’s see how Whitman proposes to deal with those issues.
TT: I hear you saying it’s a lean operation. At the same time, there’s been a lot of legislative interest in the agency lately. Are you going to ask lawmakers for a significant increase in funding?
HW: Yes, I am. I sure am.
Now, we’re still working on those LARs [Legislative Appropriations Requests]. We want to make sure we’re asking for the right funding that we need. Certainly, pay increases are going to be an issue there, because they’re not making enough money to do what they do.
That’s a good start. Whitman doesn’t yet know how much of an increase he’s going to ask from the legislature, because he’s only been on the job a short time, but he promises to demand more money for caseworkers. And he seems to understand that the job of a caseworker is a difficult and stressful one. So far so good.
TT: Let’s talk about your background. As you mentioned, it’s in law enforcement, which I think is a first for a Department of Family and Protective Services commissioner. What is a Texas Ranger doing at the top of the agency for child protection and foster care, and how does that shape your priorities?
HW: The question I always ask staff that I meet with is, “Which one of y’all think that a policeman is not a social worker?” I say, “Don’t answer, just think about it.” And then I tell people this:
You know, for the last 20 years I’ve been an investigator, and I’ve seen the worst of the worst that can happen to a child and the elderly. The worst. We have to be with those families during a time of tragedy. We help them with our victim’s services. We’re there with them many times to see what we can do because they’re poor. We are not just investigators. We handle a lot of that.
If that’s an answer, I’ll eat my hat. The idea that, in some way, police officers and social workers are the same is patently absurd. Their training is entirely different and the goals of one aren’t the goals of the other. Likewise, the job of a police officer is almost completely different from that of a CPS caseworker. If Whitman truly believes this nonsense, he’s in for some surprises. Worse, so are the kids his agency is supposed to care for.
What about those stratospheric caseloads Texas’ underpaid caseworkers are supposed to deal with?
TT: Talking specifically about the death of Leiliana Wright in Grand Prairie, that case has brought a lot of attention to the backlogs caseworkers face. What concrete steps are you taking to reduce those caseloads?
HW: First of all, we’re going to have a better working relationship with law enforcement. That’s not an option. Our 140 special investigators — I would say 98 percent are former police officers already. I have charged them to become better acquainted with their local law enforcement to help out. We need to have that better connection, and we’re going to have that better connection.
Now, in that specific case you’re talking about, when I came here the first week, I asked my special investigators, “Where are you getting your information on people in the homes?” Well, I find out, they do have access to the local agencies that provide them with very basic information, like criminal case histories. I said that’s not good enough. I can’t send a caseworker into a really bad situation that’s going to save a child, if they already know things are really bad.
So we’re implementing 20 new crime analysts that are going to be trained by the Department of Public Safety. We’re going to call them information analysts. Those information analysts will be 24-7, available to these investigators, to call in and say, “This is the address we’re going to. These are the people in there. Tell us everything you need to know about them.”
To reduce caseloads in an agency with some 13,000 employees, Williamson plans to hire 20 new people, none of whom are social workers. What planet does this man live on? Those 20 people, plus increased salaries constitute the whole of Whitman’s “plan” to reduce unmanageable caseloads. To state the obvious, 20 people will do nothing to reduce caseloads. Neither will increased salaries. Those salaries may make caseworkers more willing to stay in their jobs, but the fact is that, if a caseworker has more cases than she can handle, paying her more money won’t make her better able to do so. There won’t be more hours in the day.
The other major problem is foster care capacity. Whitman has no idea of how to increase the number of qualified foster carers in a state that currently places kids in office buildings and mental hospitals because, simply put, there’s nowhere else.
TT: I want to talk about a separate, but I think related, issue facing the agency, which is foster care capacity. We’ve written a lot about kids sleeping in CPS offices and psychiatric hospitals, due to a lack of homes for them. So, same question: What concrete steps are you taking to address capacity?
HW: We have met with numerous providers that are already in the field. You get a better idea of how difficult those placements are.
Most of them are your high needs children, where our contractors don’t contract for those types of children, so it’s difficult to place them. It sickens me that they have to go in an office like that, but I’d much rather see them go there than—
We’re working on the problem. We’ve got to put them somewhere, where there’s somebody watching over them.
And what about that federal court ruling?
TT: What is your opinion on the ruling from U.S. District Judge Janis Jack, which found that Texas had systemically violated children’s civil rights?
HW: I don’t know why her opinion’s like that. I’ve read this lawsuit. We are already taking steps, outlined in the Sunset Commission [report], to start getting it in the right direction. This all started with Judge [John] Specia, who did a really good job of taking a proactive role in that.
She’s apparently sat down and made her opinion on that.
If that’s Whitman’s idea of an answer, he plainly has little concept of the job he’s supposed to be doing. He’s going to be dealing with Judge Jack and her two special masters for a long time and he’d do well to be able to demonstrate some sort of minimal knowledge of his agency and his job or the outcome won’t be pretty.
That’s the state of things in the Texas agency tasked with protecting children at risk. A man who knows little-to-nothing about children’s welfare is leading an agency already on the brink of collapse. The man so far has no realistic idea – much less a plan – of how to address the dysfunctional situation in which he finds himself. His sole idea is to plead with a pinchpenny legislature for more money with which to pay caseworkers. That’s a good idea, but it won’t begin to solve the problems that grow worse by the day and that place more and more children, already at risk from their parents, at risk from the state.
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