Protecting Texas children from abuse requires training, accountability and money

(USE THIS PHOTO) Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Director Hank Whitman is calld to testify at a public hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Human Services at the Capitol Tuesday July 12, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

(USE THIS PHOTO) Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Director Hank Whitman is calld to testify at a public hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Human Services at the Capitol Tuesday July 12, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Since taking control of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services last month, Henry “Hank” Whitman has wasted no time shaking things up at the state’s child welfare agency. And if ever an agency needed an overhaul, it’s Child Protective Services, which administers the state’s troubled foster care program.

After halting hefty pay raises that were in the works for top executives and directing all 10 regional directors to reapply for their jobs, Whitman released a 10-point proposal this week aimed at keeping children in the state’s charge safe.

That is certainly welcome, as is Whitman’s focus on accountability. Consider that in 2015, 171 children died in Texas of abuse and neglect, many under tragic circumstances that were preventable. That is up from 151 in 2014. In March, agency officials said they mishandled a Dallas child abuse case in which a girl was killed.

Also consider that CPS is dealing with the fallout from a years-long lawsuit over the foster care system. U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled in December that CPS needed a massive overhaul to protect children from danger and that children were better off before they entered the system. Got that?

The pressure to improve the agency also is coming from Gov. Greg Abbott, and rightly so.

“I was hired, bottom line, because our governor was sick and tired of reading about infants and toddlers who were severely injured or killed while or after they were involved with Child Protective Services,” Whitman said.

Those comments came this week as he detailed his proposal to the Texas House Committee on Human Services.

The American-Statesman’s Julie Chang reported that Whitman’s plan calls for training 146 special investigators with the agency over the next few months in forensic techniques used by law enforcement so they won’t miss signs that signal that something is amiss or that a child is in danger. Those investigators then will train 2,200 caseworkers.

He also said CPS will work with the DPS to train information analysts to do criminal background checks on potentially abusive parents and guardians before caseworkers arrive at a home. Though that provision could be viewed as violating a person’s privacy, such checks have become routine in many jobs. And if done discreetly, could help protect children and caseworkers. Williamson and Milam counties are piloting such efforts now, Chang reported.

Whitman’s plan also would expand a 2014 state initiative in which all foster services for a region are transferred to one provider, allowing local communities greater flexibility in how they care for foster children. That approach has shown some positive results in Fort Worth. And in effort to increase the number of foster and adoptive parents, Whitman said he would expand partnerships with religious organizations.

Those are all good steps no doubt influenced by his law enforcement background as a former chief of the Texas Rangers. And Whitman deserves credit for identifying key problems within CPS. But those efforts also must be coupled with better support and compensation of front-line workers.

Consider that the agency pays the average entry-level caseworker about $33,000 annually. It’s no wonder that there is so much turnover and turmoil among those employees. In 2015 nearly a quarter of caseworkers quit during their first year at the agency. Those who remain are overburdened.

That is the case in Travis County, where of the 110 investigator jobs available, just 54 staffers are currently juggling dozens of cases. This spring, the number of delinquent cases in Travis County skyrocketed 76 percent.

Last month, Travis County state district Judge Darlene Byrne wrote that “Texas is doing a shameful job of parenting many of its foster children. The situation is worse than I have seen during almost 13 years as a judge hearing Child Protective Services (CPS) cases.

At a minimum, Byrne said the state must spend more money on hiring and retraining many more CPS caseworkers and pay them at a “rate that recognizes the harrowing nature of the work they do.”

I applaud Whitman’s accountability measures and his awareness that caseworkers need better pay. But improving the agency’s ability to protect foster children cannot be done on the cheap. As Whitman rightly raises the bar for CPS workers, he also must raise their pay.