Kids’ lives will be saved with ‘clean up’ bill, DFPS leader says

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) Commissioner John J. Specia Jr.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The head of the state agency that oversees child abuse and neglect cases in Texas is confident a massive piece of legislation (HB 550, SB 219) aimed at cleaning up 20-year-old administrative code provisions and modernizing language will help give front line Child Protective Services caseworkers more time and tools do their jobs effectively. The bill is based on recommendations from the Sunset Advisory Commission.

“Sometimes my workers drive two hours to file a court report. We’ve got to find a way to not spend a worker’s time doing things that aren’t useful,” said John Specia Jr., the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) commissioner. “We’ve got to make this job a job that is doable and have a reasonable workload. And (cut out) a lot of the paperwork, travel…We need to really work on creating a system that gives workers more time to spend with families.”

A consultant’s report last spring found CPS workers were spending just 26 percent of their time actually visiting families in need. In Travis and surrounding counties, overworked and frustrated CPS investigators were leaving in droves, according to that report, peaking at 58 percent in the last year.

“When you’re losing a large percentage every year of caseworkers, then you’re always working with a young, just-trained workforce,” Specia said, indicating fixes like the agency’s new mentoring program are already bearing fruit.

There’s also a new child safety tool fully rolling out in March aimed at making sure every case is put through the same priority list. In October, CPS staff in Central Texas called on a team of Master Investigators to clean up a caseload of cases older than 60 days that topped 450. By mid-November, the caseload had been cut to 335. That decision came about the same time as three CPS workers, including a program director, were fired for what Specia called “major mistakes” in investigating the death of 2-year-old Colton Turner of Cedar Park.

While CPS quickly turned out an internal investigation that resulted in the staff clean up and new ways of conducting casework, KXAN has repeatedly made requests to receive the Turner death summary report from the Health and Human Services Agency Office of Inspector General. Typically, such a record — which can determine criminal wrongdoing of state staff — is produced within 90 days. KXAN has been told the report is not yet ready.

Looking ahead to the new legislative session, Specia said he is about to submit a new Legislative Appropriations Request “to ask for certain things, specifically for transformation. And I feel really good about us getting those things.” This comes the same day a new online video was released touting a new, much thinner policy manual that puts more decision-making power into the hands of those front-line caseworkers.

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