Letter to budget writers: we need immediate raise for CPS caseworkers

Lego toys (KXAN Photo)
Lego toys (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The heads of Child Protective Services and the Department of Family and Protective Services say they do not have enough CPS caseworkers to keep Texas children safe. Wednesday, Texas lawmakers will try to figure out where to get the money to take care of this crisis.

Here’s a number to know: 171. That’s the number of children the state says died of neglect and abuse last year. A real fear is there are more cases that go unreported.

The head of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) wants to hire 550 new caseworkers and child investigators but many worry without a salary bump the new hires will join hundreds who quit less than a year on the job.

UT Austin hopes to prepare students for life in the workplace. With more than a decade of social work experience, Monica Faulkner knows the challenges of watching over abused and neglected children.

“I was always prepared to make less than my friends in other professions but I was willing to do it because I had that commitment towards the greater good,” said Faulkner.

She runs the Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing. It’s a deal with students. The program gets federal funding to pay for tuition and books if the student promises to work in DFPS for two years after college. “You have to make it a place where people are appreciated and valued and where people want to work,” said Faulkner.

“Not only talk about the fact that we have a crisis but we do something about it,” said Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. She sent a letter to budget writers laying out a plan to raise the pay.

Right now a CPS caseworker makes around $35,000 a year. She wants to see that bumped up to $47,000 or more in the high-caseload areas. That would be an added cost to the state of around $60 million a year says Rep. Howard. “You’re telling potential recruits that we are going to take care of you and you’re telling the taxpayer that we are going to have sustainable front line employees who are going to be working with these vulnerable children.”

She says the stakes of doing nothing will be too many caseworkers will quit before a year on the job, new social workers won’t sign up and Texas children will fall through the cracks.

Texas made a similar move just two years ago.  The governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House directed budget writers to move more than $86 million in December 2014 to go to border security. The money was originally passed for other purposes, but lawmakers said the influx of people crossing into Texas was a crisis and the money was moved.

Rep. Howard says if that was a crisis, children dying under the care of the state surely is one, too.

For months we’ve been telling you about caseworkers given too many cases to manage. Right now the average CPS employee is handling 19 cases a month. In Central Texas it’s 17. The recommended number is 12.

In some cases, the families already have a long history with CPS. We’ve been following the most recent incident since last week.

We checked Tuesday evening and learned no court date has been set for Stephen Cortez, Jr. He was arrested on Friday. Police say he hurt his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter and the injuries were so serious it caused her death. Cortez is charged with injury to a child, which carries the same punishment as murder. CPS had been called to the home just three weeks before her death.

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