- Editorial Board Special to the American-Statesman
Some of the long-sought changes necessary to overhaul the state’s embattled child protection agency — such as more staff and better pay — are steadily but slowly taking shape. But agency leaders must not lose sight of those who stand to have the greatest impact on improving care for some of the state’s most troubled children: its staff members.
The latest sign of overhaul at the agency came this week, when the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees Child Protective Services and the state’s foster care system, announced a temporary hiring freeze, citing decreasing staff turnover rates in recent months.
While signaling that the agency is staffed up, the hiring freeze will only serve Child Protective Services if it reaches some sort of stability. That’s a tall order for an agency known for myriad problems, including high turnover, low morale, large workloads, burnout and inadequate protection of foster kids.
We are encouraged, however, by the changes taking place.
The wheels of change began rolling last year, when lawmakers approved $150 million in emergency funding for the agency to hire 829 employees – including 550 caseworkers and investigators – as well as to fund a $12,000 pay raise for some positions. Those measures produced positive results, including smaller caseloads, lower turnover rates and more in-person visits by CPS investigators with children who are most in danger of serious harm or neglect.
To continue progress, agency leaders must look for more ways to improve the work environment for all staff members. Workloads are one measure. The current statewide ratio of cases to caseworkers dropped as a result of recent hiring, according to the agency. Ratios are higher in Austin, however, for workers in family-based safety services and conservatorship — or foster care.
Smaller caseloads mean caseworkers and investigators can better serve abused and neglected children. While current numbers provided by the agency suggest work conditions have improved, they don’t reflect the realities of all who are on the frontlines. For example, experts recommend that conservatorship workers handle no more than 17 cases at a time, though but the current statewide average is 27.2 — and 31.2 in Austin.
Though data is a good measure of how things are changing, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Agency leaders should keep in mind that progress has been achieved because of the people who work for the agency. CPS will only be as strong as its team members are made to feel appreciated. It would be a good idea for CPS leadership to conduct a survey of its workers to gauge morale.
Work conditions should be improved in other areas, such as adopting best practices for serving foster kids and crafting a culture centered on putting children — rather than process — first. Providing support services to help CPS workers better manage stress and burnout also are good ideas.
CPS investigators are making more timely visits with Priority 1 children, identified as those most in danger of serious harm or neglect, according to the agency. That’s good news.
Last month, between May 21 and 27, the statewide average for CPS investigators visiting with Priority 1 children within 24 hours was less than 89.8 percent, just under the state-required 90 percent benchmark. In January, only 78 percent of Priority 1 children were seen within 24 hours.
In May, for the fourth consecutive month, the number of abused and neglected children sleeping in state offices and hotels because no foster-care beds were available increased by 20 percent, or 84 children, according to the Department of Family and Protective Services. In most of these cases, investigators or caseworkers put in additional work hours to accompany the children.
Agency leaders must address when long overnight hours add to an already long, stressful workday, possibly leading to burnout.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed two bills into law during the regular legislative session to address the lack of placement options. One bill, which this board supports, gives low- and moderate-income relatives of an abused child a stronger financial incentive to take in the child. The other bill, which moves some foster care beds and services under the care of area nonprofits or local governments, gives us reason to pause. The state’s privatized foster care program failed in 2005. State and agency leaders must ensure history is not repeated.
Certainly, hiring more people is a good step, especially if it decreases caseloads and increases visits with some of the most vulnerable children in the system. But a temporary pause is not by itself a panacea and does not go far enough to resolve the issues that expose so many foster kids to danger. Leadership, morale, pay and vital resources for staff all play a crucial role in stabilizing the workforce at CPS.