DFPS commissioner: I need troopers to find at-risk children

FILE - Texas State Capitol (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Texas State Capitol (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The sheer volume of emergencies is shocking: Five hundred high priority calls where a child’s life might be in danger have gone unanswered every day. One hundred and seventy-one children died from abuse and neglect last year in Texas.

The head of the Department of Family and Protective Services, Hank Whitman, told lawmakers he doesn’t have the manpower to fix this. Now he wants the Department of Public Safety to dedicate Texas troopers to help. During a Senate Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, he received a note from Colonel Steve McCraw, the head of the Department of Public Safety, that troopers are available.

“They know if I’m asking for that, it’s important to me, it’s important to them, I know no police officer anywhere that doesn’t care about kids,” Whitman said. He anticipates having Troopers begin within 24 hours of the meeting.

This comes as he asks for millions of dollars more ahead of the 2017 legislative session. That would money go to hire 800 new people, 550 of which would be front line child investigators and caseworkers.

Senate leaders say money is on the table, but they want to make sure the money won’t be wasted hiring caseworkers only to lose them to turnover.

“I’m willing to put in whatever resources it takes and I say that telling you, we’re going into a tough budget session, and I do not want to spend any more money on something that’s not working,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Whitman told senators four caseworkers quit the DFPS every day. A new caseworker takes home just $24,000 a year after taxes.

Around 1,500 people quit the department every year and it costs taxpayers $83 million to replace them. Senators want to fix that problem so they don’t pump money into a failing system.

CPS was already set to receive nearly $1.5 billion from the state this fiscal year. Whitman told the finance committee his budget request will likely increase. Lawmakers demanded a new plan before the next legislative session that includes higher salaries for CPS workers.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled Texas’ Child Protective Services system unconstitutional because it violated the rights of children in the care of the state. She wrote many children leave the system worse off than they entered. She appointed two “special masters” to give her a report on how to fix the system, which is due Nov. 4.

The life of a caseworker

Will Francis graduated with a Master’s degree in social work in 2010 and went to work for CPS in Williamson County. “I had about 50 kids, which in the grand scheme of things for this state is a whole lot. Caseload sizes should really be around 15 or so.”

He says the children’s parents had mental health or substance abuse issues that led to abuse and neglect. Many have to be rushed to offices or hotels overnight to stay out of harm’s way.

“I had to drive at 4 o’clock in the morning near Waco and then drive her back to our office. Took her out for breakfast. She was a 15-year-old kid and left a placement where something had happened. Nobody told her why she was leaving,” said Francis.

But making less than a teacher’s salary, he didn’t feel there was enough mental support for him, especially when a child cared for by his coworkers died. “Because the caseworker has to take some things at face value, they just don’t have the time to look into all of it… they weren’t able to give their true attention to it.”

After two years he left CPS, part of high turnover plaguing the agency. He says high stress, low pay, too much paperwork and lack of support all led him to his current job. As part of the National Association of Social Workers, he says he can do more good outside the system, than in it.

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