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.

 

Forget about raising pay for execs, foster families need more money

Henry "Hank" Whitman heads the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services May 1, 2016.
Henry “Hank” Whitman heads the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services May 1, 2016.

It’s been said a number of times that the wheels of government turn slowly. But in this situation those wheels spun at near lightning speed, thanks to the ever-vigilant reporting of the American-Statesman’s Andrea Ball.

Her reporting on hefty pay raises that were in the works for top executives of the state’s Child Protective Services agency stirred outrage among state leaders who oversee the agency. Officials took swift action to halt the raises while they still were in the incubation stage.

By way of background, Ball reported that CPS agency officials were recommending that each of CPS’s 10 regional directors make a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of $142,000. Those pay hikes, amounting to double digit increases, would have cost $268,000.

In the case of Travis County’s regional director, it would have meant a 29 percent pay raise, increasing the pay for that job to $110,000 a year, Ball reported. A memo justifying those pay raises said regional directors should make more money because they “perform complex, highly advanced managerial work.”

Ball obtained the information regarding pay raises through a confidential document provided to the American-Statesman.

That was on Wednesday. By Thursday, the agency’s recently installed chief, Henry “Hank” Whitman, killed the deal. Whitman had not seen the proposal, but no doubt had to be embarrassed by it, given the agency’s troubled past and continued dysfunction.

“No salary increases for regional directors will even be considered until clear improvement is seen at CPS,” said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services that oversees CPS.

Aside from being tone deaf, executive pay raises seemed a brazen gesture, coming at a time when Child Protective Services is regularly criticized for its low pay for front line caseworkers.

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 in the agency that oversees the state’s beleaguered foster care system.

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.

Ball reported that Travis County, like some other large counties, is suffering from a severe shortage of investigators. Of the 110 investigator jobs available, just 54 staffers are currently juggling dozens of cases. The number of “delinquent cases,” those open for more than 60 days, rose both locally and statewide. This spring, the number of delinquent cases in Travis County alone skyrocketed 76 percent.

In April, the Dallas regional director resigned after a Dallas Morning News article exposed severe turnover problems and soaring caseloads in that area, causing such a large backlog of cases that investigators were missing deadlines for visiting children or not visiting them at all. Agency officials also admit bungling a Dallas child abuse case in which a little girl was killed in March.

In her June 29 commentary that appeared on our Viewpoints page, Travis County state district Judge Darlene Byrne detailed the poor conditions plaguing the state’s foster care system:

“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.

“Children are sleeping on air mattresses on the floors in CPS office buildings because workers can’t find appropriate foster homes. Slightly luckier children have stayed at hotels or makeshift shelters to await placement. One child in my court waited for two weeks while exhausted CPS workers took round-the-clock shifts to stay with her at the CPS office. How traumatic and dehumanizing must this be for a child that has been removed from an abusive home and separated from all the people and things that matter to them? It is no wonder several of these children awaiting placement have run away.”

Burn went on to outline solutions:

“There’s no mystery here – to do better, we just need to spend more money for the right things. Not on highly paid consultants, but on key areas. At a minimum, we need to spend more money on: (1) hiring and retaining many more CPS caseworkers paid at a rate that recognizes the harrowing nature of the work they do; and (2) paying foster homes appropriate and sustainable reimbursement rates.”

She has a point.

Whitman, the former head of the storied law enforcement agency the Texas Rangers, has his work cut out for him persuading the Legislature to spend more, as well as sensibly, on the foster care system.

He would be wise to listen to and take advice from Judge Byrne, some experienced caseworkers and foster parents. Those are the people who know first-hand what the problems are and they are the ones who hold the answers for fixing the state’s foster care system.

If that happens, then maybe the wheels of government will finally turn faster for needy children in the state’s care.