AUSTIN (KXAN) — State leaders say they want to pump more resources into the struggling child welfare system but negotiations over who gets paid what have stalled the process.
Child advocates say the Department of Family and Protective Service officials and the elected leadership of Texas missed a key deadline for immediate action and have limited time with the state’s attention.
Who gets paid what
In October news broke that Child Protective Services did not respond to hundreds of reported calls of child abuse and neglect for days. Will Francis from the National Association of Social Workers was hopeful after a Senate Finance hearing where the message was; the state would pump in money as soon as possible. The only argument was how many new employees to hire and how much of a raise to give them.
“We need it to happen now so DFPS can start making immediate improvements,” said Francis.
The Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner, Hank Whitman, came up with an emergency plan to see all the kids at risk of abuse and neglect. It called for 550 additional front line caseworkers and 279 support staff with a $12,000 a year raise; totaling just over $91 million dollars.
Several days later, a Senate work group announced the upper chamber would support hiring 100 additional workers with the pay raise for the front line workers but no more. Senate leaders didn’t want to spend money hiring hundreds of workers only to have them quit in a short time. Four people quit DFPS every day because of high caseloads and what many call a “punitive” environment.
President of the Texas Senate, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick highlighted his concerns in a press release; citing how DFPS couldn’t move through their backlog of at-risk children despite a “85 percent increase in funding since 2006-2007 to the current total of $2.85 billion.”
Texas House budget writers did not respond to a request for comment.
A missed opportunity
Will Francis supported an idea by Austin Democratic Representative Donna Howard, who called for a “budget execution.” Leaders had to agree on a plan and submit it to the Secretary of State’s “Texas Register” by Nov. 9 for excess money to be appropriated. Now that date has passed, immediate money can only come by the Health and Human Services Commission requesting to “exceed authority” and move money from one healthcare strategy to another. In Francis’s words, “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Now he joins a growing skeptical chorus who aren’t convinced this emergency money will happen at all.
Waiting on a deal
Wednesday, outside of a House County Affairs Committee on Child Protective Services, Commissioner Whitman told KXAN he’s still optimistic his department will be able to hire the new employees with raises by Dec. 1. He says he asked for what he needed to get the job done and anything less than that would lead to some abused and neglected children going unseen.
“I don’t want to come back in two years and have them ask me, why isn’t it fixed? Well, we didn’t get the adequate funding; the personnel or the funding to give them what they deserve as a good pay raise,” said Whitman acknowledging tough budget times ahead. “There’s not a money tree out there. You have to work within the budget. That’s the difficult thing for all of us in government including our lawmakers who are the ones who are going to help us get there.”
As for specifics on the plan? “We just don’t know yet. Right now we’re still in that process and we’re working toward it,” Whitman said.
Carrie Williams, the Chief Press Officer for HHSC, the agency that oversees DFPS, told KXAN over email, “Right now, state leadership is looking at the details and finalizing what it plans to approve. We will follow that direction so we are in lock step as a state to protect children.”
That department has to make an official request to the Legislative Budget Board, a group of lawmakers from the House and Senate. The LBB has not yet received a letter to ‘exceed authority”.
Chairwoman of Senate Finance Jane Nelson, R – Flower Mound, is an LBB member and told KXAN, “I don’t know what the delay is, but we need an action item before us immediately.”
KXAN reached out to the outgoing Chair of House Appropriations and LBB member, Rep. John Otto, R – Dayton, but have not yet heard back.
Fears of kicking the can
As head of the executive branch, Governor Greg Abbott appointed Commissioner Hank Whitman to his post. Governor spokesperson Sam Taylor said via email that DFPS is “currently awaiting a unified response from the Legislature on Commissioner Whitman’s plan to ensure we can continue to implement reforms to further protect Texas children and eliminate child deaths.”
Will Francis is not convinced this funding will become reality. Texas lawmakers begin their legislative session in January and he fears other issues could steal attention away from CPS.
“I don’t think they will really be able to fix their internal culture of caseloads and other things unless they start to bring those people on board,” said Francis after realization that leaders missed the Nov. 9 deadline and are stuck in negotiations. “If we do not get this done now we’re talking end of session at best, we are looking months and months away. Which mean child deaths and workers not being able to do the job.”