AUSTIN (KXAN) — An updated emergency plan from the Department of Family and Protective Services calls for a $1,000 a month pay increase for Child Protective Services caseworkers, supervisors and program directors across the state. That brings the total close to $62 million in additional money for new staff ahead of the 2017 legislative session.
The department submitted a plan to lawmakers to fund 550 additional front line workers to locate hundreds of unseen at-risk children.
“A glaring cause of this crisis is that our workers are outnumbered by the opponent — child abuse and neglect,” wrote Henry “Hank” Whitman in a letter outlined his new plan to state leaders, “Providing a salary increase will have a positive impact on retention.”
Wednesday, members of the Senate Finance Committee berated agency officials about emergency calls of abused and neglected children in Texas going unanswered. Whitman, the new commissioner of the DFPS, described how low pay, high caseloads and high turnover don’t allow the agency to do its job.
In a passionate plea to lawmakers Whitman said, “Something’s got to give. You can beat on me all day and I’ll take the beating. I’m a tough guy. Beat on me. I don’t care. But I’m telling you right now, we need the help, and it comes in a monetary way.”
Whitman describes a successful case study in his new plan. In 2014, DPFS began providing $1,000 more a month to employees in areas around Midland. Turnover in that area went from 42.7 percent to 21.5 percent.
A starting caseworker takes home $24,000 a year. Four caseworkers quit CPS every day.
After the Senate hearing, Department of Public Safety troopers coordinated with DFPS to locate 47 at-risk children. By Thursday night, they located 26 of them. None were removed from their family.
Another part of the new plan calls for taking reforms known as Foster Care Redesign in Fort Worth, statewide. Whitman also writes in his plan that he will role out a new supervisor training model on Dec. 1. An internal survey showed many caseworkers believe they worked in a “punitive” environment.
Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, created a special work group to oversee the funding process. “Time is of the essence, so our work group is moving quickly to review the new recommendations. I have also asked the agency for daily updates on their efforts to address this crisis,” said Sen. Nelson.
In the days ahead, the work group will decide measures to fund the new plan. Lawmakers gavel into the next legislative session in January.
Comm. Whitman closed his letter, “As you so clearly described at the hearing, we have to protect each and every child in this state, each and every day.”
John Wittman, a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott tells KXAN his office supports the new plan.
The limits of law enforcement
Cortney Jones spent 10 years in foster care. During that time she says she had encounters with police.
“I ran away for various reasons and I did encounter law enforcement,” said Jones. “Most of the time when I encountered law enforcement they took the word of my foster parent over me. I was treated like more of a criminal than a victim or a person that has been abused or neglected.”
Today, Jones says collaboration is important and DFPS cannot work on its own. She also notes that officers have hearts, but most simply do not have the same training as caseworkers.
“If an officer is coming into a home and saying that there is allegations of abuse and neglect someone is probably going to be — nine times out of ten — very scared and they may respond out of fear,” said Jones.
“If it’s being done thoughtfully and well trained people are involved. It could be fine,” said David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “You can’t just take an ordinarily trained cop and say go check on the kids. They have to be people who have some knowledge about child development, how to do investigations, how to talk with kids.”
Still Finkelhor says having law enforcement available to immediately rescue children makes sense, but many times investigators will show up at a home to find a complex situation where what’s happening isn’t immediately clear.
“It’s a short-term fix,” said Jones.
She points out that the state now has to be prepared to step in to help kids, if troopers find a problems.
“While this surge in resources and effort will address the immediate problem, it is not sustainable and the agency will need additional staff to help stave off future crises,” wrote DFPS Commissioner Henry Whitman, Jr. in a letter Thursday to Texas Senator Jane Nelson, the chairperson of the Senate Finance Committee. “Therefore, I am requesting authority to hire an additional 200 investigative caseworkers in CPS to ensure that more children are seen timely.”