Child Protective Services holds trainee graduation as agency rebounds

Travis County Judge Aurora Martinez Jones swears in new caseworkers at a DFPS regional office in Austin. (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)
Travis County Judge Aurora Martinez Jones swears in new caseworkers at a DFPS regional office in Austin. (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Department of Family and Protective added 14 new caseworkers to Child Protective Services Tuesday afternoon in a trainee graduation ceremony. This comes as the agency is making progress in rebuilding a program that came under immense scrutiny by the public and state lawmakers more than a year ago.

After 10 years in the military operating patriot missiles, Christopher Montieth still wanted to serve. After eight weeks training in the field, four weeks in the classroom and another four tagging along with a mentor, Tuesday’s ceremony makes him an investigator for CPS.

“There are a lot of kids out there who don’t have a voice that can’t speak up for themselves. For us we need to be there to make sure that they’re safe,” said Montieth.

Late in 2016, several high profile child deaths led lawmakers to take a closer look at the state foster care system and DFPS, the agency charged to run it. Longtime wounds came up as the agency ripped off all the piecemeal bandages legislators had placed on over the years.

Being a CPS caseworker is a demanding and high-stress job. During this past winter, four people would quit the agency every day and caseworkers were often overburdened with caseloads and underpaid. At the time, newly appointed DFPS Commissioner Hank Whitman pointed the finger at lawmakers for allowing the program to be underfunded to a level that did not allow the agency to operate successfully. Abused and neglected children went unseen by investigators and caseworkers. Several children died because state workers didn’t get to them in time.

Then, during the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the agency to hire more people and pay them more.

The regional offices here in Travis County have seen improvement. Last year the county had 129 caseworkers with 25 cases each. Now, they have 188 caseworkers with 10 cases each. The agency has seen similar results statewide.

‘Yeah the pay is nice but a lot of us that are here want to be here to help the kids and because we aren’t having to rush through an investigation, we can actually do that job that we’re meant to do,” said Montieth.

Many eyes are watching the agency. Child advocates have sued the state of Texas, alleging DFPS is so underfunded and mismanaged it’s violating the rights of the children in foster care. The federal lawsuit is still pending.

Outsourcing to non-profits

Lawmakers passed a major law in 2017 that would continue the process to outsource many functions of DFPS to non-profits. As private companies begin taking a more active role in CPS, we’re getting a better idea of some of the services they’ll offer. One of them will help CPS workers match foster children with foster families.

Paul Epp, CEO of Foster Care Technologies says, “As one of our customers called us, we’re like the e-harmony of foster children and foster families. We would set up an agency like we did in Texas, import all their homes into the database and then our matching algorithm helps produce a best match list which shows a list of results the placement worker can then choose from”

The software application is called “e-cap,” short for “Every Child a Priority.” Foster Care Technologies says it helps decrease the time to make a permanent placement. It’s already being used in a pilot program in Fort Worth. The tool will expand across the Texas foster care system in the years ahead.

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