AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the state’s three newest regional directors for Child Protective Services start their job this week, they’re tasked with one of the hardest jobs: keeping Texas children safe.
“Each of these veteran CPS managers began as a caseworker, working with our families in their communities. Each has a solid reputation in those communities, and each has indicated readiness for leadership in this critical time for CPS,” said Henry “Hank” Whitman, Commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), in a statement Friday.
Whitman himself is also new to DFPS. In April, Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Whitman—after a tumultuous few years under Commissioner John Specia—in order to provide a new direction that promotes putting children first, while also holding the agency’s services accountable. Under Specia’s leadership, the agency underwent a drastic transformation to improve internal management issues. During the same time, the agency saw an increase in children dying as a result of abuse and neglect with the foster families selected for them by the state or its contractors. In fiscal years 2013 and 2014, 13 children died as a result of abuse and neglect; in 2012 there were two deaths.
Last week, the Texas Health and Human Services Committee led by Georgetown Republican Senator Charles Schwertner, held another committee meeting. It was the latest in a year long effort to closely watch reforms within the major health agencies of Texas.
In April, there was a hearing examining the accountability within DFPS due to the high-profile child deaths in recent years. The committee implemented a five-year, 10-point plan to improve CPS, beginning with their employees.
“It cannot be turned on a dime, but it can be turned,” said Whitman at April’s meeting. Whitman ordered his regional directors to reapply for their existing jobs along with the new applications back in June. This new plan is described to generate the best productivity out of their employees.
Last session, state lawmakers added an additional $100 million to the DFPS budget to implement Protect Children through an Integrated Service Delivery System. The program’s goal is to specifically reduce child abuse and neglect.
“State leaders have made clear that one of the priorities next session is strengthening CPS so kids are safe and foster care is a place for healing. This hearing was an opportunity to discuss lowering CPS staff caseloads and other policy steps to address this challenge when the Legislature meets in January,” said Kate Murphy, a Senior Policy Associate for Child Protection at Texans Care for Children.
Last week at a luncheon for the Dallas Regional Chamber, the Texas Tribune reported Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said he’s focused on making sure children aren’t victimized.
“Children have been failed by a system that is supposed to protect them from abuse and neglect,” Straus said. “We may not be able to stop every instance of child abuse in Texas, but we can absolutely do better.”
“I agree with House Speaker Joe Straus that fixing the gaps in our CPS and foster care system needs to be a top priority for all members this session,” said Senator Charles Schwertner, R -Georgetown, “It should go without saying that the state of Texas has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that every child entrusted to its care is dealt with compassionately and kept safe from abuse and neglect.”
Earlier this year, Meechaiel Khalil Criner, a homeless runaway, was charged with the murder in the death of University of Texas freshman Haruka Weiser. He is a product of the Child Protective Services system and has been in and out of foster care since he was 3 years old.
The three new regional directors are:
- Leshia Fisher, Regional Director for the 12 counties surrounding (but not including) Harris County.
- Marta Talbert, Regional Director for the 30 counties in Central Texas, including the Austin metropolitan area, Waco/Temple (including Fort Hood), and Bryan/College Station.
- Tara O’Connell, Regional Director for the Corpus Christi region south to the Rio Grande Valley and west to Laredo.
One CPS regional director position, for the region from Wichita Falls to Abilene, remains vacant but an announcement is expected soon.