AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott has approved shifting funds around at health agencies so the state can immediately hire new workers at Child Protective Services with pay increases. After negotiations before and during the Thanksgiving holiday, four key lawmakers need to approve the plan before it becomes reality.
Last month, Abbott-appointed head of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), Hank Whitman, submitted an emergency plan. He hopes to see hundreds of abused and neglected children, prevent child deaths, and lower the average of four people quitting the agency every day. In a letter before the holiday, Whitman asked for more than 800 additional employees, $12,000 a year pay raises for front-line workers, and 10 to 20 percent salary increases for upper level employees.
Lawmakers missed a key deadline for the $142 million plan to be additional money known as a “budget execution.” Whitman’s plan would move money from Medicaid and a federal grant issued to DFPS. According to the agency, in order to “exceed authority” it needs approval from the Governor, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and House Appropriations Chair John Otto, R-Dayton.
Gov. Abbott’s office said he approved it within hours of receiving the request and expects it to become reality Dec. 1.
“Texas children in the child protective system continue to be at risk, and we must not delay providing the critical resources and support that CPS urgently needs. I fully support Commissioner Whitman’s proposal to achieve my stated goal — no more child deaths in Texas,” said Gov. Abbott in a statement.
House and Senate staffers tell KXAN tough negotiations over the details are still in the works.
A specially formed group of six House Republicans and six House Democrats recommend Speaker Straus approve the plan if more accountability measures are added. They ask Commissioner Whitman to submit a monthly report on how the agency is keeping the new hires, who they believe are “strongly” needed.
“However, we believe equally as strongly that CPS is in need of cultural change so that excellence is rewarded and better outcomes are achieved,” the 12 lawmakers wrote in the letter.
Straus spokesperson Jason Embry says the speaker “looks forward to taking action very soon on a plan to improve Child Protective Services.”
House Appropriation Chairman John Otto’s office says he’s waiting for budget writing staff to review the plan and recommend next steps.
After a heated committee hearing last month, Senate Finance Chair Nelson appointed a work group to make recommendations. Those included the pay raises and hiring an additional 136 employees. One of the Senate’s concerns was adding hundreds of new people without fixing a “punitive” work environment that would only lead to more turnover.
“My preference is to address the most critical need first — retention of our front-line caseworkers — and allow the full Legislature to dig deeper into appropriate staffing levels,” she told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week.
KXAN reached out and asked the Senator’s office if she will approve the DFPS plan and have yet to hear back.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s office did not respond to our request for comment.
The Human Cost
Tyler Shupp was born into Foster Care. A family adopted him when he was 18-months old but then he was turned back over to the state at six. He lived in more than ten cities as he was switched from placement to placement.
“I grew up all over Texas,” said Shupp.
While staying in a dorm-like treatment center for foster children he says he was abused physically and sexually. “I still think about it to this day. It’s not something you can go and get over it. It’s just like going over to Iraq and shooting somebody. It’s going to be with you for the rest of your life, until you die,” he said.
As a teenager he ran away and avoided help from the state. To him, going back into foster care was going back to abuse. At a recent House hearing, DFPS officials said the agency could not find a third of children who run away from foster care.
“Anything that you could possibly think that doesn’t happen in the system, happens. Like, it happens every single day, every single minute,” said Shupp.
He recently aged out of foster care and was living on the streets of Austin until a local non-profit, Austin Angels, took him under their wing. The non-profit group provides mental health and financial support to people in foster care and those who’ve aged out. Tuesday night they celebrated with Tyler after they helped him get a car and find a place to live. Shupp says it helps him hold down a job and gives him the security of having a safe place to stay.
Hundreds of children are not as lucky and remain homeless.
Child advocates say the influx of money and pay raises will help DFPS locate and help abused children and those who’ve run away. Commissioner Whitman hopes to start the hiring process this Thursday, Dec. 1. Lawmakers begin their legislative session Jan. 10. Child advocates fear leaving it until then would delay much needed reforms for months.