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Viewpoints: CPS overhaul needs holistic solutions, hearty funding

The question has been asked: Is the job of a Child Protective Services investigator – or any job at the agency, for that matter –the toughest job in Texas? The answer depends on whom you ask. One thing is for certain: It doesn’t have to be.

Whether or not the job – be that of caseworker, supervisor or front-line administrator – continues to be seen as among the worst occupations depends on how state lawmakers address the shortcomings that for decades have plagued the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services’ Child Protective Services, which administers the state’s troubled foster care program. Lawmakers have until May 29 to make those difficult decisions and help Gov. Greg Abbott deliver on a promise to overhaul the agency and decrease the number of child deaths due to abuse or neglect.

Since 1996, the state has called for several studies to examine the agency. Each time, the findings were the same: The system is broken. Solutions with emphasis on little funding – like the 2005 disastrous, failed privatized foster care program – seem half-hearted.

The tune at the Legislature seems more urgent now, since a judge’s 2015 ruling in a class-action lawsuit against the state’s foster care system and anAustin-American Statesman investigationthat showed 800 children died of abuse between September 2009 and March 2014 in Texas.

When it comes to the welfare and safety of a child, Texas cannot rely on shortcuts and penny-pinching any more. This time, things have to be different.

An abundance of the bills filedaddressing child welfare – the most some experts have ever seen in a single session – would suggest lawmakers are serious about getting the job done and getting it right this time. That’s encouraging.

Legislators are also sending a message of support in the budgets they have proposed. Though both chambers added more than$430 million to Child Protective Services, the House went a step further by voting to cut $43 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, which provides subsidies to lure companies to Texas. The House will split money from the Enterprise Fund between CPS and Medicaid therapy services, which were severely cut in 2015. Still, both chambers should look to allocate even more money.

The key for lawmakers will be to push for policies promoting holistic solutions that serve the best interests of maltreated children. That includes addressing the issues that most affect families dealing with abuse, such as mental illness and drug addiction.

To start, legislators can use as a compass therecommendations presented last yearby court-appointed special masters. Those suggestions came after U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled Texas’ foster care system unconstitutional and quickly ordered the state to fix the troubled system.

Among the 50 recommendations, special masters call for improving retention of caseworkers, limiting caseloads and eliminating foster care group homes. Recommendations also call for tracking and providing timely medical attention for mental wellness and other health services for children who have experienced severe trauma. The list is long, but following these recommendations would only bring the state up to minimum standards, experts say. More work would still be needed.

Under pressure from Abbott, lawmakers are currently addressing turnover and pay issues. Late last year, Texas lawmakers approved $150 million in emergency funding to hire 829 employees – including 550 caseworkers and investigators – as well as to fund a $12,000 pay raise to staffers to keep them from quitting. Already, those measures have shown promise.

Consider that between March 19 and 25, CPS investigators made in-person visits with 92 percent of “Priority 1” children within 24 hours, a state-mandated requirement, an analysis provided by the Department of Family and Protective Services shows. Priority 1 children are identified as those most in danger of serious harm or neglect. In comparison, only 78 percent of Priority 1 children were seen within 24 hours in January, according to the analysis.

The same analysis also shows that fewer caseworkers are quitting their jobs. Since January – when pay raises were distributed – an average of 72 caseworkers a month have left the agency. That’s a decrease from the 131 caseworkers a month who left the agency during the last four months of 2016.

That’s good news. But, if lawmakers want to create real, measurable momentum, they will have to dig deeper to continue to build on that progress. Aside from better pay, caseworkers also need better tools to serve the families and children. Again, we urge lawmakers to look to bills that would provide those tools.

For instance, House Bill 4, which allows monthly payments for relatives caring for children in their families who have been abused, is a tool that addresses the lack of foster care placement options facing the agency today. The shortage of options has led to more than 300 children sleeping in state offices and other temporary living situations.

Yes, taking a holistic approach is expensive. It will take money and patience to fix the persisting problems the state has refused to address properly over three decades. But it’s time the state invested properly in keeping children safe and took measures to ensure that children under the protection of the state are being educated, protected and live a quality life.

It’s time the state provided the folks at Child Protective Services the tools to be among the best jobs in Texas.

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