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October 6, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The plight of Texas children at risk for abuse or neglect is getting worse, not better (Dallas Morning News, 10/4/16). For years now there’s been a state of crisis in the agency that’s tasked with keeping children safe from parental/caregiver harm. Governor Greg Abbott claims to have made reform of Child Protective Services and its parent organization, the Department of Family and Protective Services, a top priority. But significant doubts remain, and the new data reported here strongly suggest that whatever is being done isn’t working.

Specifically, the number of children at serious risk for abuse or neglect who are known to CPS has spiked to 4,700. Worse, caseworker turnover has spiked too, reaching a whopping 33% in fiscal year 2015. Just two years ago, a study by the Stephen Group found the rate of yearly turnover of CPS caseworkers to be almost 27%. That was clearly untenable; the situation is now far worse. And of course, as caseworkers flee their jobs, those who remain are left with even higher caseloads than before. To be clear, prior to 2015, caseloads were far too high, sometimes reaching three times the industry-recommended standard.

But worst of all is the fact that large numbers of kids are listed as Priority 1, i.e. at imminent risk of abuse or neglect, but, particularly in the state’s largest counties, are seldom seen within the time required by state law. The reason? Not enough caseworkers to see to them.

As the state's child welfare system reels from an exodus of child abuse investigators, tens of thousands of potentially endangered children are going unseen for weeks and months, and the dangerous trend shows no sign of abating.

A new release of data by Child Protective Services indicates no region is more precarious than Harris County, which a Dallas Morning News investigation in May showed was headed for trouble due to enormous backlogs of child abuse cases.

Across Texas, as of Sept. 12, more than 4,700 children at risk of physical or sexual abuse or severe neglect should have already had face-to-face contact with a child abuse investigator but haven't, the data show. 

When children are seen, CPS investigators across the state are failing about 31 percent of the time to make initial contacts with families within required deadlines.

Abbott’s office swears it’s dedicated to making needed reforms.

"Protecting Texas' children is a top priority for Governor Abbott, and he has made it clear that the status quo is unacceptable and that additional measures must be taken to reduce and eliminate child abuse, neglect and death," Abbott spokesman John Whitman said in a written statement. "The governor will continue to work aggressively with the Legislature and DFPS to overhaul the current system and continue working toward his stated goal of no more child deaths in Texas."

Fine words, but are they anything more than that? Is the state’s top executive really dedicated to the type of reform that keeps children safe? At this point, I have to say that I doubt it. After all, Abbott’s hand-picked person to carry out the reform, Hank Whitman, has no background in child protection. His last job was head of the Texas Rangers, a legendary, but tiny law enforcement organization of 150 commissioned officers. And, as I pointed out here, his written outline for reform is long on platitudes and short on anything like substance. Does Whitman even know the issues?

And then of course there’s the issue of money. Unquestionably, Texas needs to budget more money to hire and retain more caseworkers.

Union representatives and child advocacy groups have said that to solve this crisis, CPS caseworkers need to be paid more and their caseloads need to be lessened to retain good staff.

Abbott and commissioner Whitman have not indicated they support raising caseworker pay. Instead, officials in Austin plan to lower the education requirements of caseworkers, so the department can hire more child abuse investigators while keeping their low salaries, about $37,000 a year to start. 

That’s right. What got the state’s kids to the perilous position they’re now in – too little money, too few caseworkers, too-high caseloads – will continue, and Governor Abbott will call it “reform.” Meanwhile, the only significant change to the status quo is the opposite of what should occur. Lowering the education requirements for caseworkers won’t improve kids’ chances of being protected, it’ll just allow the state to throw some miscellaneous bodies into an already dysfunctional agency and hope for the best.

The reasons why lowering standards is a bad idea are too many to list, but here are a few.

First and most obviously, figuring out whether a child is at risk for abuse or neglect and then figuring out what to do about it is hard work. It’s not like changing a tire or ringing up a purchase on a cash register. It takes sophisticated education, training and experience. Even the best caseworkers sometimes make the wrong call, so why would lowering standards improve the possibility of making the right one.

Of course making the right call may not be part of Abbott’s agenda. Lowering standards addresses one and only one problem currently faced by CPS. It adds caseworkers. Or does it?

My guess is that flooding CPS with undereducated and undertrained caseworkers will (a) sow discord among agency personnel and (b) increase turnover, particularly among veteran staffers. After all, how is it going to feel to a caseworker with a Master’s Degree in Social Work to all of a sudden be placed on par with a high school graduate, paid the same and given the same responsibilities? It’s a move calculated to anger existing personnel who are already paid too little and given too much to do. My guess is that a lot of those existing caseworkers will move on from an agency that never seems to improve either its protocols, its results or its employee morale.

The likely result would be an agency with plenty of caseworkers but few with the credentials to do the job right. This is reform? No, it’s movement in the wrong direction. Want proof?

In the state's biggest counties — Dallas, Tarrant [Fort Worth], Travis [Austin], Bexar [San Antonio] and Harris [Houston] — the picture is bleakest. While about 11 percent of children in those counties weren't being seen at all by child abuse investigators in March, nearly 13 percent aren't being seen now.

Child abuse investigators in those counties miss deadlines to initial contacts more than 38 percent of the time, on average.

If Greg Abbott is serious about protecting Texas’ children, he’s doing a good job of hiding the fact. At this point, it looks like the only one who thinks children’s welfare is important is Federal Judge Janis Jack. The recommendations of her two special masters should be made public soon.

My guess? Abbott will oppose them as being an impermissible intervention by the federal government into the affairs of the state. And the beat will go on.

We’ll see.

 

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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