October 14, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The latest scandal out of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services had barely been made public last week, when the top echelons of state government swung into action. As I reported here, the latest report on child protective services in the state is a litany or horrors.
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.
And the Dallas Morning News was equally outraged at the new revelations (Dallas Morning News, 10/4/16).
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.
That and more were just the latest of a three-year string of revelations, each more shocking than the previous one, about the working conditions of caseworkers and their resulting inability to handle even the basics of child protection. And of course there’s the ruling by federal Judge Janis Jack that the entire system violates the civil rights of the children it’s supposed to protect and appointing two special masters to recommend reforms.
Such is the backdrop against which Texas’ highest elected officials issued a public letter about the crisis (Texas Tribune, 10/12/16).
Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders ordered the Department of Family and Protective Services Wednesday to ramp up efforts to protect endangered foster children and curb the backlog of ones waiting for homes.
Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus released a joint letter to department Commissioner Hank Whitman directing him to immediately develop a plan to hire and train more special investigators to take up the backlog of at-risk kids who have not had a face-to-face interaction with Child Protective Services. The lawmakers are also calling on the agency to create a hiring and training schedule to get more caseworkers out into the field and to continue working closely with community organizations. The lawmakers also called recent news of children sleeping in hotels and CPS offices “unacceptable."…
We also will not tolerate inferior residential foster care operations,” the state leaders wrote in the letter. “The state’s residential providers must be held to the highest standards while caring for our most vulnerable or no longer operate in our system.”
That’s a tough, no-nonsense message, right? The trouble is, they don’t mean a word of it. They’re playing to the crowd, hoping the crowd doesn’t notice the fine print. That came in the Morning News’s last article linked to above.
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.
In short, Abbott, Patrick, et al are trying to look tough on the issue of child safety while doggedly refusing to do the one thing that’s unquestionably required to do a better job of protecting children at risk – pay caseworkers more. Texas is already close to the bottom of the nation in caseworker pay, so it’s no surprise that they leave the agency as soon as they find better employment. Low pay fails to attract replacements resulting in too few qualified caseworkers to handle the cases that come to them. Stratospheric caseload levels further discourage new hires while encouraging existing caseworkers to leave.
As to the issue of money, the Texas Tribune echoes the obvious question.
While Abbott and other state leaders are calling on the agency to move forward on a plan regardless of budget concerns, it's unclear how soon the department will step up its efforts with a looming $40 million budget shortfall and already overworked caseworkers.
Gilding the lily, the letter went on to say this:
State leaders also directed Whitman to “reinforce the culture of accountability” by making sure staffers “rise to the challenge” ahead.
Accountability? That would be accountability “for thee, but nor for me.” The hypocrisy of the three highest-placed elected officials in the state demanding “accountability” of DFPS and its commissioner, while simultaneously refusing to even consider upping the agency’s budget is blinding.
So when elected officials publicly address a letter to the commissioner of the DFPS, Hank Whitman, demanding prompt, effective action, they’re not only passing the buck, they’re telling the man to do the impossible. Words on a piece of paper may satisfy voters who don’t know the details of everything that makes Child Protective Services the incompetent agency it is. Of course, that’s exactly what Abbott, Patrick, et al are hoping. But they don’t change the reality of the agency or that faced by thousands of Texas children one bit.
Meanwhile, others who are more reliable than Abbott, et al know what needs to be done.
Kate Murphy, senior policy associate for child protection for Texans Care for Children, said in an emailed statement that "caseworker turnover and kids bouncing from one placement to another are challenges the state can overcome." She said while it was good to see state leaders alarmed about the department's challenges, it's also important to look at increasing caseworker pay and foster children access to health services…
Miriam Nisenbaum, executive director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said CPS needs a strong workforce with a variety of backgrounds in areas like behavioral health and social work. Yet a recent decision to scale back the agency's caseworker education requirements has undermined that goal.
There’s a word for what Abbott, et al are doing – grandstanding. It may get votes, but it doesn’t help children.
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