Texas not taking basic steps to protect children, report says

FILE - Children playing with toys (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Children playing with toys (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Experts charged with recommending fixes to Texas’ child welfare program advise the state to dedicate more resources and get back to basics.

Child Protective Services caseworkers are responsible for finding abused and neglected children in Texas, removing them if necessary, and moving them through the state’s child welfare system. In 2015, Federal District Judge Janis Jack charged child care experts Kevin Ryan and Francis McGovern to recommend reforms to the program now in the public eye after high-profile child deaths and abused children, who weren’t seen after reports came in.

They recommend having a picture of every child in each case file and ensuring every abused child sees a doctor after CPS workers make contact. These recommendations hint that CPS, under the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), is unable to do what many think are basic steps to ensure child safety.

Their report was due Friday, Nov. 4 to the Corpus Christi court and also recommended cutting the caseloads of CPS workers in half; going from 30 to 40 cases, to 14. This issue came up earlier this month in a heated Texas Senate hearing where agency officials said they did not have enough caseworkers to ensure Texas children are safe. Four caseworkers quit DFPS every day. The agency wants to hire 550 new front line workers but is waiting for emergency funding from state budget writers.

Other recommendations in the wide-ranging report included requiring caseworkers to meet with the children privately.

Many child advocates believe this report could become a court order.

Last December, Jack declared the state foster care system unconstitutionally flawed and ordered the independent overhaul. Jack said in her ruling that the state’s foster care system is so broken that it often leaves children in long-term care more damaged than when they entered.

The two “special masters” appointed by Jack have been working on the reform measures since April.

The report was criticized by the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Director of the Center for Families and Children, Brandon Logan for the “special masters” getting paid $350 an hour for information the state already knew.

“The preparation of the report and the further billable hours it recommends come at considerable expense to Texas taxpayers. At the same time, the court decision covers less than 10 percent of the children in Texas foster care and will not address the immediate needs of children sleeping in agency offices or unseen by the agency despite reported abuse and neglect. Though the litigation has brought attention to a broken system, it will not fix foster care,” said Logan.

But many think another reminder will prod the state to reform. “By and large it’s on the right track,” said Kate Murphy, with Child Protection Policy Associate at Texans Care for Children. “They will simply bring the system up to the minimal standard of no longer violating children’s rights under the U.S. Constitution.”

There is more than 40,000 children in state care according to DFPS 2014 data book. Around 17,000 exit the system. But nearly 30,000 children stay in the system every year.

Texas State Senator Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairs a Senate work group to come up with funding for CPS reforms. Sen. Schwertner said he appreciates the recommendations announced and looked forward to reforming the state foster care system. But he adds, “I think we all acknowledge the need to make improvements in how DFPS operates, but ultimately the responsibility for solving this problem lies with the Texas Legislature — not the courts.”

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