- Julie Chang American-Statesman Staff
More caseworkers are staying on the job and workloads have plummeted almost a year after state officials provided $12,000 pay raises to employees in the Texas child welfare system, which had been plagued by child deaths and delays in visiting children in reported abusive homes.
After the raises went into effect in January, the percentage of staff leaving Texas Child Protective Services dropped by 5 percentage points to 20.7 percent in the first three months, according to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees the state’s child welfare agency. Currently, the turnover rate is 18.4 percent, the lowest in at least a decade.
The average number of vacancies has also decreased, and the number of cases per caseworker is more aligned with national standards, which is translating into better services for vulnerable children, according to advocates.
The pay boost was followed by a raft of reforms passed by the Legislature in May that overhauled the state foster care system, including extending the pay increases for the next two years.
Not all the reforms are being embraced by advocates, however. One measure calls for outsourcing major foster care services, meaning some of the same people who received the pay raises could be out of jobs.
The state Senate Finance Committee on Dec. 5 will hold a hearing on how the pay raises and other initiatives have affected the state’s child welfare agency.
“The problem was that caseloads were too large for people to meet the responsibilities, and staff was just quitting so rapidly that the work wasn’t getting done,” said F. Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, which represents children in CPS cases. “The pay raise was critical … and it put an immediate stop to the bleeding of staff.”
But fixing the litany of workforce problems within CPS and foster care is going to take more than just money for caseworkers, advocates and state employees union representatives say. Raises need to go to supervisors and other staff members departmentwide. Caseworkers need more nurturing work environments. Parents need more social services, like drug and violence prevention programs, so their children aren’t taken from them.
“The targeted pay raise was a step in the right direction, but there is still a long ways to go to address some of the fundamental problems in the agency,” said Myko Gedutis, a Texas State Employees Union organizer for employees of the Department of Family and Protective Services. “It’s a step. We need a leap.”
Progress so far
Late last year, lawmakers approved $150 million in emergency money for the agency to pay for the $12,000 raises for front-line staff members, such as caseworkers and child abuse investigators, as well as to hire 829 employees.
Caseloads have declined for investigators, for conservatorship caseworkers who work with children removed from their parents and for family-based caseworkers who work with parents at risk of losing their children.
Caseloads have come under particular scrutiny after a 4-year-old Grand Prairie girl was beaten to death last year even though CPS had been called to check on her parents before. Her caseworker had 70 cases.
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.
The conservatorship caseloads didn’t see as large of a drop because not enough of the types of caseworkers who handle those cases were added during the hiring initiative and it takes longer to close a conservatorship case, said Dimple Patel, senior policy analyst for the Texas Association for the Protection of Children.
“In foster care having one consistent caseworker in your life really means the child gets to know one person and their family members all go to that one person for support,” Patel said.
More children in potentially dangerous homes are being seen by caseworkers in a timely manner, an issue that had troubled lawmakers during the legislative session. Last year, CPS reported that thousands of children across the state had not been seen by child-abuse investigators one to three days after a report of abuse, the state-mandated time frame in which caseworkers must see children who are reported abused.
During the week of Oct. 29, the most recent data available, 151 children had not been seen in a timely manner.
The reforms to the child welfare agency came after a federal judge in 2015 ruled that a major part of the state’s foster care system was unconstitutional and suggested that, in some cases, children had been better off before they entered the state’s care. The state continues to appeal the ruling.
During the regular legislative session this year, lawmakers approved an additional $500 million for the agency over the next two years in part to continue funding the additional caseworkers and raises approved last year.
Among several bills targeting CPS and foster care, one measure increases payments for people who foster children who are relatives.
Under House Bill 4, a family that makes up to $73,800 will receive about $386 per month to care for a foster child who is a relative.
The governor’s office also has invested in four programs to keep children from having to sleep in CPS offices.
“We are very encouraged, as these improvements translate into better service – and more protection – for our state’s children and families,” said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services. “And we are very grateful for the consistent support from Gov. Abbott and the first lady, and a group of very dedicated legislators.”
Arguably the biggest child welfare-related bill that lawmakers passed this year will begin the gradual process of handing over major foster care services from the state to local nonprofits or local governmental entities, including caseworker visits, court-related duties and decision-making on where children live, learn and receive services.
State officials issued a request for applications in September to take over foster care services in Bexar County as well as 30 counties in the Abilene area, with more areas to come.
Proponents say children will be better served in their local communities through “community-based foster care.” Skeptics like McCown and Gedutis fear the only ones interested in contracting with the state will be private entities like nonprofits, whose financial interests might not jibe with the children’s best interests. They’re concerned private entities will not be financially prepared to take on the lofty task of administering foster care.
“The state is passing off systemic problems to the private sector with the hope that they will magically fix the problems,” Gedutis said.
‘Still work to be done’
Although employees are grateful for the raise, more can be done to improve work environments as well as the child welfare system, according to child welfare advocates and employees.
Because of how raises were determined, some supervisors and program directors make less than the employees they’re supervising.
Since caseloads vary across the state, agency leaders need to ensure that low statewide averages don’t mask high caseloads in some urban areas, Patel said, adding that the state needs to focus on bringing down the number of caseloads for conservatorship caseworkers.
McCown said that, to improve the entire system, officials need to focus on preventing children from entering foster care by investing more in social services for families.
The same investment in social services also should apply to caseworkers, who often experience secondary trauma from their line of work, said Sarah Crockett with Texas CASA, which helps support local volunteer court-appointed special advocates for abused children.
“You’re talking about, frankly, one of the hardest jobs there is,” she said. “You’re going in and making (difficult) decisions about families, so making sure that we’ve got enough emotional support and a culture that is helping people work through the difficulties of that job and preventing them from burning out – there’s still work to be done.”