AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Texas Child Protective Services caseworker assigned to investigate abuse and neglect complaints regarding Colton Turner juggled more than 30 cases around the time she was fired, agency records reveal. Two of her bosses were also fired after the 2-year-old was found dead.
Child welfare advocates say the ideal number of cases is 12, but Diana Cortinaz had 31 cases in August. The three months prior records show she was shouldering 35 cases.
“Even the best caseworker can mess up when they’re overwhelmed. There’s only so much you can do in one day,” admitted Ashley Harris, a former CPS caseworker in Austin who now serves as an advocate for Texans Care for Children. The group lobbies for child welfare funding at the state legislature.
Working in a region plagued with high numbers of child abuse and neglect complaints over the past several years, newly-promoted Level 3 investigator Diana Cortinaz was not alone. A spreadsheet listing CPS investigators of all ranks working in Region 7 — which includes Travis and Williamson Counties — shows two dozen workers tasked with monitoring dozens of cases at once. Several had more than 40. Even some trainees had up to 20 cases, the data shows.
Like Colton Turner’s death, these are cases involving potential child abuse or neglect. In October, CPS parachuted in so-called ‘master investigators’ to clean up case files that no one had attended to for 60 days or longer. A month in, the numbers have been reduced from 450 down to 335. The team of case specialists will remain in Austin through the end of the year, said CPS spokesperson Julie Moody.
Harris suggests caseloads be capped so as few children as possible get forgotten.
“I did good work (with CPS), but there were times I wasn’t able to do good work because I was overwhelmed,” Harris said. “I think with all the tragedies, including the Colton Turner death, ‘that could have been me.’ I could have been that child caseworker that had a child death on my caseload.”
Harris says the caseload burden in Central Texas is partly based on how many staff were quitting, transferring the load onto remaining workers. Last summer, KXAN found that 14 percent of CPS investigators either quit or were fired.
That was much lower than the 2013 turnover in Region 7 which reached 58 percent among investigators. The statewide staff turnover throughout CPS in 2013 was 24 percent, according to that year’s annual report. The turnover rate among other state employees was six percent.
The Department of Family and Protective Services has said they will ask for an 8 percent increase in funding this year compared to the last couple fiscal years. However, that new money will only keep caseloads from rising beyond this year’s levels.
A retention specialist has also been brought in to see why Travis and Williamson County CPS staff departures are among the highest.
“Part of my role is to assess why Travis County is unique and address the personnel needs (there),” said Judge John Specia who in heading up DFPS’ transformation plans. He appeared before the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission on Nov. 12 to receive positive reviews from lawmakers about his work since taking over the helm in late 2012.
In January, CPS plans to roll out a paid mentorship program as well as a streamlined field training program for new hires. Those were suggestions that emerged as part of the state’s Sunset Review report into DFPS, in addition to an outside consultant’s report into the how the state was helping the its most vulnerable children. It found caseworkers were spending just 26 percent of their time actually visiting young clients.