For years, when something went wrong at the state’s child welfare agency, it was the low-level employees who took the fall.
Child abuse investigators, foster care workers, their immediate supervisors and, occasionally, their bosses resigned, were fired or suddenly retired.
But this time — as the agency is being pummeled by profound problems with child abuse deaths, foster care, backlogged investigations and rising turnover among experienced workers — it’s not just the ground-level employees heading out the door. It’s the top-tier leaders who have been running things:
- John Specia, the commissioner for the Department of Family and Protective Services — which oversees Child Protective Services — announced last month that he is retiring after more than three years on the job. Specia said he only signed on for a two-year commitment when he took the job in 2012 and had planned to retire this past December.
- Lisa Black, the CPS former head, retired in February.
- Paul Morris, head of child care licensing for Family and Protective Services, resigned Monday
- Colleen McCall, the director of field operations in charge of all 11 CPS regional offices across the state, resigned Tuesday.
- Jackie Freeman, CPS regional director in the Dallas area, retired last week
Specia’s exit isn’t unusual for that job. He is the Department of Family and Protective Services’ fourth commissioner since 2005, with one leader lasting less than a year. Specia believes CPS is better off since he took over in 2012 because it is focusing more on results, data, training and retention.
But the exit of so many top leaders over the course of a few months is a transformation of leadership not seen in years at the department. Gov. Greg Abbott is demanding major improvements at the beleaguered agency.
“The status quo at CPS is unacceptable,” Abbott said Monday. “Our children are too important to suffer through the challenges they’ve faced.”
On Monday, the former chief of the Texas Rangers, Henry “Hank” Whitman, was named as the successor to Specia when he retires in May. The governor also appointed Kristene Blackstone, a deputy director in the child support division of the Texas attorney general’s office, to run CPS.
State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, believes the new leadership has some serious work ahead of it.
“When you have an isolated tragic incident, it can be easy to pinpoint specific actions or employees who may be responsible,” he said. “But when you have the deep systemic problems like we’re facing in Texas CPS, management in the agency must ask themselves whether they have the strategy and the energy it’s going to take to meet these challenges, and, equally important, whether the state has given them the means to get the job done.”
The American-Statesman reported systemic troubles at the agency last year in its extensive investigation called Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences. On Sunday, the paper reported that in many ways things have only gotten worse.
The number of child deaths has increased. So has the number of abused and neglected kids. Investigations are dragging on, which means more children are being left in potentially dangerous situations. More experienced caseworkers are fleeing the agency. More foster kids are sleeping in CPS offices while the agency tries to find them homes.
But perhaps the biggest blow to the agency hit in December. That’s when U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack ordered the agency to radically reform a broken foster care system in which “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm,” her ruling stated.
In her decision, Jack called out specific state leaders for their individual failures.
Former CPS chief Black, the judge wrote, didn’t read important reports about problems at the agency. “The Court was troubled by Black’s testimony,” Jack wrote. “At trial, Black admitted she had not read multiple high-level reports about problems at CPS, including the 2010 Texas Adoption Review Committee report that discussed CPS caseworkers’ high caseloads and turnover rates.”
Jack said she was troubled that Morris — whose division regulates, licenses and investigates residential foster care operations — was “often unaware of important information relevant to his division” and that an internal review of 111 abuse or neglect investigations found mistakes in 75 percent of them.
“This is staggering, and it means that many abused children — for whom a preponderance of evidence indicated that they were physically abused, sexually abused, or neglected — go untreated and could be left in abusive placements,” Jack wrote.
CPS Director of Field Operations McCall didn’t have key information important to helping caseworkers, Jack added: “Most shocking, McCall, the (agency) officer in charge of making sure that caseworkers have manageable workloads, has ‘no idea what size child caseload (her) conservatorship workers should have in order to do their jobs properly.’”
McCall’s work has come under more scrutiny in recent weeks because of problems in the regions she oversees. A Dallas Morning News investigation exposed severe turnover problems and soaring caseloads in the Dallas region, causing such a large backlog of cases that investigators are missing deadlines for visiting children, or not visiting them at all. Meanwhile, agency officials agree that they blundered in a Dallas child abuse case in which a little girl was killed in March.
Freeman, the Dallas region’s director, retired last week.
Problems in Travis County are also coming under the microscope. A Statesman investigation showed that the number of backlogged cases in Travis County has spiked 76 percent in the past year amid an environment that former and current employees call toxic and abusive. Such backlogged cases in the 30-county region that included Travis have skyrocketed 72 percent.
“Delinquent” cases, as they are called, have been a factor in some child deaths across the state.
In an email sent Monday, Morris wrote that he was leaving to take another job.
“I also want you to know that it has been an honor and a privilege to work with such a dedicated team of professionals these last three years,” he wrote. “You’ve taught me a great deal about Licensing and the critical role we have in reducing risk to children in care.”
McCall also wrote an email to her staff, saying that she was proud of her 40-year career at CPS and that she felt “blessed” to have worked with the state leadership team.
“However, the work is never easy and the demands on our time are great,” she wrote. “My family is calling me and I owe them some quality time after so many years of putting my CPS duties first.”
The email says that her last day is May 19.