Just three years after his appointment, Hank Whitman is stepping down as Texas’ Commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services (Texas Tribune, 5/28/19). The DFPS oversees Child Protective Services in the state.
Whitman’s appointment raised eyebrows back in April of 2016 because the man has a law-enforcement background with the Texas Rangers. What that had to do with children’s welfare, the foster care system, cases-to-caseworkers ratios, etc. few people could figure out, myself included. Still, on the face of it at least, Whitman’s done what was needed. My guess is that he’s happy to be returning to law enforcement, but today, three years later, CPS is in much better shape than it was when he arrived.
Whitman will perhaps best be remembered as an outsider with little experience in social services who shepherded the child welfare agency through a period of crisis by advocating fiercely at the Texas Capitol for pay raises for his frontline staff.
“We strengthened investigations by building expertise, improving processes and streamlining management,” he said in the announcement video. “We worked for well deserved pay raises for program staff to help reduce turnover and caseloads. And we made significant progress on many other fronts.”That’s all to the good of course, but giving Whitman the credit might be considered, shall we say, generous. The reality is that, when he took over at the DFPS, the Lone Star State couldn’t reasonably have done anything else but provide large amounts of additional funding to salvage a child welfare agency that could charitably have been called dysfunctional.
After all, how much horrible press can one agency stand before something gives? The regular drumbeat of children, known by CPS to be at risk, dying due to lack of attention from CPS alternated with reports of caseworkers carrying up to 70 cases, some five times the industry standard. Then there was the scathing report of an audit of CPS that painted a gruesome picture of caseworkers leaving the agency as soon as they could for better jobs and better pay, paperwork obligations that kept those caseworkers in the office and away from the children they were supposed to be protecting and procedural manuals that ran to thousands of pages and often contradicted each other.
No one reading the news about Texas DFPS could have failed to get the message that the state was trying to do child protection on the cheap and children were suffering the consequences - all too often, the ultimate consequence.
Then came Federal Judge Janis Jack’s findings in a class action suit against the DFPS that revealed a system that turned out kids at age 18 in worse condition emotionally and physically than when they’d entered. Anyone with an understanding of recent Texas history knew that could mean the takeover of the child welfare system by a federal judge-appointed special master. That had happened back in the 70s when Federal Judge William Wayne Justice took over the operations of the Texas Department of Corrections to prevent the ongoing civil rights violations that were a daily part of prison life there.
In short, the governor and the legislature had read the writing on the wall before Hank Whitman took the oath of office. Casper Milquetoast could have been appointed commissioner and the same thing – massive additional funding - would have happened. Or so I strongly suspect.
I don’t begrudge Whitman’s taking credit for improving the agency. After all, it was done on his “watch.” Still, there was always a distinct air of inevitability in the proceedings.
What I question though is the timing of his departure. Three years was barely enough time for him to dip his toe in the chilly water of the Texas child welfare system, particularly given that he had so little background in the applicable issues. So why jump ship now?
Yes, Whitman’s first allegiance is surely law-enforcement and maybe he’s just getting back to what he knows best. Or maybe he sees that Texas has done all it’s going to do for the time about cleaning up the horrendous mess that was CPS. Do lawmakers figure that the crisis has been averted and plan to scale back funding again? Do they count on privatization of the system to solve all problems?
Did Hank Whitman find himself on a wild horse he couldn’t ride?
We’ll see soon enough.