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State leaders to CPS: Get your act together

One week after news reports that Child Protective Services isn’t promptly seeing thousands of endangered children, Texas’ three top elected leaders issued an edict to the agency Wednesday: Get your act together.

In a letter to Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman — whose agency runs Child Protective Services — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus told Whitman that it is “completely unacceptable” that the state isn’t making timely visits to children believed to be in immediate danger of abuse or neglect.

In mid-September, more than 14,000 kids across the state, one-third of those with open CPS cases, had not been seen by child-abuse investigators between 24 and 72 hours after a report of abuse, the state-mandated time frame in which caseworkers must see children. Of those, nearly 2,000 were considered urgent cases, meaning the children could have been in immediate danger.

In Travis County, 42 percent of about 2,900 children hadn’t been seen by the deadline.

In the letter, Whitman was ordered to:

  • Develop a plan to hire and train more special investigators. Special investigators are CPS employees with law enforcement backgrounds who locate hard-to-find children whose families have moved or are actively avoiding CPS.
  • Develop a strategic hiring and training plan to ensure CPS has enough caseworkers to handle increases in workloads and backlogs. The state leaders want the agency to prioritize hiring in the most critically overloaded regions in Texas, which include Houston and Dallas.
  • Emphasize accountability at all levels of management.

STATESMAN INVESTIGATION: Missed signs, fatal consequences

They also told Whitman to increase partnerships with faith-based organizations.

“Their assistance in recruiting amazing families is mission critical, and we need their support within the child welfare community now more than ever,” the letter states.

Whitman was ordered to respond to the trio by the end of next week on how he will meet their directives.

“I appreciate very much the support and encouragement from the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker, as well as the acknowledgement of the many difficult issues we face,” Whitman said in a statement. “Protecting children is our highest priority. We have to do better. All of our energies are focused on making this right and putting the safety and welfare of children first, no matter what.”

Whitman was also ordered to figure out a way to stop housing foster children in CPS offices. The Statesman reported Sunday that 330 children have slept in hotels, offices or emergency shelters since January because the state had nowhere else to put them. Both children and caseworkers have been hurt in such arrangements when children became violent. In one case, two teenagers stole a caseworker’s car and crashed it after driving 100 mph on I-35.

Last week, the state began using armed security guards to watch foster children staying in Travis County’s main CPS office.

In Wednesday’s letter, Whitman was ordered to develop a plan detailing how the agency and foster care providers can work together to fix the problem.

RELATED: Despite reforms, Texas child abuse deaths rise, investigations lagging 

“It is unacceptable that children are sleeping in CPS offices,” the letter states. “We also will not tolerate inferior residential foster care operations. The state’s residential providers must be held to the highest standards while caring for our most vulnerable or no longer operate in our system.”

The letter comes six months after Abbott appointed Whitman to the top job with the mandate to overhaul CPS.

Child Protective Services has always been saddled with enormous challenges, including high turnover, low salaries and a shortage of foster homes. But the agency’s troubles have become even more dire over the last year.

Child abuse deaths are up. The number of children sleeping in offices and hotels is skyrocketing. High turnover has left caseworkers unsuccessfully trying to handle the workload.

Compounding the problem is that a federal judge has ordered the state to overhaul its foster care system.

Abbott tapped Whitman in April to replace departing Commissioner John Specia, a former judge who retired after three years on the job.

“The status quo at CPS is unacceptable,” Abbott said at the time. “Our children are too important to suffer through the challenges they’ve faced. I’ve insisted on overhauling a broken system, and I applaud the leadership changes that will provide a new direction and focus that puts protecting children first.”

Whitman’s arrival brought change on the leadership level. In August, the state fired four of its 10 regional directors in charge of CPS across the state. A fifth director retired.

In his budget request to the Legislature, Whitman has asked for 510 additional CPS investigators to reduce the backlog of cases, as well as an unspecified number of special investigators. Whitman also sent an email to law enforcement agencies across the state expressing his desire to work more closely with them, said Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins.

The commissioner has also asked the state for $99 million to expand the state’s foster care redesign initiative. Through the redesign initiative, the state hires a single private contractor responsible for finding foster homes, living arrangements and services for children within a specific geographical area. The state is already doing this in one North Texas region that includes Tarrant and Johnson counties.

The $99 million would allow the state to expand the redesign initiative to eight other regions. That would make a significant dent in the state’s problem with housing kids in hotels and offices, Crimmins said.

In their letter, the officials said they know that additional resources are needed to deal with the number of children CPS handles. The Senate Finance Committee will meet Oct. 26 to consider how to fund any plans Whitman puts forth.

They say they are “confident that the Legislature will make judicious budgetary decisions,” but that CPS can’t wait to make changes.

“We have much work to do,” the letter states, “and while we wish we could give you and your team more time to do so, too much is at stake. We must act now.”

What we reported

Last week, the American-Statesman reported that, in mid-September, more than 14,000 kids across the state, one-third of those with open CPS cases, hadn’t been seen by child-abuse investigators between 24 and 72 hours after a report of abuse, the state-mandated time frame in which caseworkers must see children. Of those, nearly 2,000 were considered urgent cases, meaning the children could have been in immediate danger.

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