More caseworkers are staying on the job and employee workloads have dropped, but the state’s troubled child protection agency is still missing the mark on seeing children in potential danger in a timely manner.
Late last year, the Legislature approved $150 million that gave caseworkers, including child abuse investigators, in Child Protective Services a $12,000 yearly pay increase and allowed the agency to hire 829 employees.
After the raises went into effect in January, the percentage of staff leaving CPS dropped by 7 points to 18.4 percent, the lowest in at least a decade. Investigators’ average daily caseloads dropped to 14.5 in the fiscal year that ended in September, an 18 percent decline from the previous year. Family-based caseloads remained at 15, and conservatorship caseloads declined to 28 from 30. The best practice is for each caseworker to have between 12 and 17 cases.
“This could not have happened without you all. Period,” Hank Whitman, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services which oversees CPS, told the state Senate Finance Committee during a hearing Tuesday.
Although CPS caseworkers are seeing more children in potentially dangerous homes compared with earlier this year, CPS fell short of seeing 95 percent of “priority 1” children within 24 hours, which the Legislature has required of the agency. Caseworkers saw 91.4 percent of priority 1 children during the week of Oct. 23, according data Whitman presented Tuesday.
“I understand … children you’re having a difficult time finding, but I continue to be concerned. We made funding dependent on achieving certain benchmarks and that 95 percent is a benchmark,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the committee.
Whitman explained that some of the families of those children were purposely evading CPS.
Other obstacles include errors in reporting and the children being in other states, said Kristene Blackstone, CPS associate commissioner.
Lawmakers further grilled Whitman on what CPS could have done to prevent the death of a recent priority 1 case in the Dallas area. Sherin Mathews, 3, died in October and her adoptive father has been charged with injury to a child. A doctor testified in court last week that she had reported to CPS injuries she had found on Sherin in March.
Despite pressure from lawmakers, Whitman declined to talk about the specifics of the case, but said the doctor “was not sure at the time” when she first reported the injuries.
“A child could’ve been alive today,” Nelson said.
Much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on the effects of the infusion of state money on caseworker retention rates and caseloads with many lawmakers applauding the improvements. Whitman attributed some of the success to internal efforts to boost morale and better train supervisors who oversee caseworkers.
“When I came to the agency a year and a half ago, I said if we want to see the same outcomes, we need to continue to do the same thing and we’re not going to do that,” he said. “We did … things that we never tried before.”
The Legislature approved funding to maintain the new hires and salary increases over the next two years as well as to hire additional caseworkers. The Legislative Budget Board projects caseloads to stay or drop even more.
Some members of the public who spoke before the committee asked lawmakers to consider pay increases for CPS contract managers, support staff and supervisors who in some cases are making less than the caseworkers they’re overseeing.
WHAT WE REPORTED
The American-Statesman published “Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences,” a three-day series of stories in 2015 reviewing 779 child death reports by Child Protective Services from September 2009 through March 2014. The Statesman found nearly 400 cases in which children who died of abuse or neglect were known by CPS to be in potential danger. The investigation found that high staff turnover rates and low salaries contributed to the problem.
MORE ONLINE: Find the full investigation at projects.statesman.com/news/cps-missed-signs.