Since then, conditions for CPS investigators have improved across the board, a fact acknowledged by children’s advocacy groups that pushed for reform and supported by data tracked by the state. Salaries are one-third higher, turnover rates are down, and caseworker responses to reports of abuse or neglect are timelier than recent lows in 2016.
Last year, 4,769 children in Denton County and 4,420 children in Collin County were reported to Texas CPS as alleged victims of abuse or neglect. In 2016, when turnover was highest, caseworkers in both counties worked an average of 14.4-18.5 cases per month.
“That doesn’t seem like a lot, but a few cases make a big difference, particularly when the children need to be seen regularly,” said Katherine Howard, program director for CPS investigations in Collin County.
In 2017, after staff turnover rates improved, the percentage of cases worked per month declined.
Challenges still exist to alleviate pressure on the state and local foster care system, and advocates have shifted their focus to addressing those issues.
Addressing foster care
The network of foster care families in the area exceeds the number of children who are in foster care in Collin County, the state’s numbers show. However, Collin County foster families are often called upon to house children from other parts of the state.
As a whole, the state’s foster care system is strained at times to meet the needs of all the children who are deemed too at-risk to stay in their homes, said Dan Powers, chief operating officer of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County.
“We need more foster homes,” Powers said. “We need more of our community to support these children that are in foster care—not just in foster care, but in the CPS system itself.”
Before sending a child to a foster home, caseworkers typically explore whether the child has a family member who can take care of him or her. This approach is, more often than not, the best for a child who is taken out of his or her home, Powers said.
“That separation has very serious consequences on that child’s life, and placing them with somebody they know and someone familiar to them hopefully would decrease the trauma they experience,” Powers said.
Lishawa Jackson, program director for CPS investigations in Denton County, said the agency works hard to make sure to first place children where they are familiar and have a support system, whether that is inside or outside the county. This has created somewhat of a shortage of foster homes in Denton County, Jackson said.
“There’s a lot of work being done to get the message out there that we need more homes, and we’ve made progress in that area,” Jackson said.
The Texas Legislature approved additional funding last year to incentivize kinship care as an alternative to foster care. Relatives who take in an at-risk child are provided $350 monthly payments to help cover part of the cost incurred by those families.
This approach also serves to widen the total pool of homes available to children and lessen the strain on existing foster homes, Powers said.
Advocates at Dallas-based advocacy group TexProtects, the Texas chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America, are turning their attention to improving the foster care system, primarily by prompting the state to take advantage of provisions in a new federal law. The Family First Prevention Services Act, signed into law in February, offers resources to states that incentivize relatives taking in children and alleviating pressure on the foster system.
But the state will need to tighten up aspects of its foster care system to reap the benefits of the law, a major focus of TexProtects’ lobbying efforts in the 2019 legislative session, said Pamela McPeters, vice president of public affairs for TexProtects. Some of the funding for services in the bill are contingent on the state meeting standards for congregate care facilities, where children are sometimes placed in groups under supervision when they do not have a home to go to.
A victory for reform advocates
The funding for additional caseworkers and other measures to strengthen the foster care system were viewed approvingly by TexProtects.
The statewide numbers showed an almost immediate improvement in employee retention. In fiscal year 2016, 25 percent of CPS employees left the agency. By August 2017, turnover had dropped to 18 percent. Investigative caseloads declined by one-third in the same time, according to the CPS annual report from that year.
High turnover rates did more than any other factor to contribute to casework overload and declines in timely responses in North Texas, Howard said. The size of the staff would have been sufficient at the time to carry out their work, she said, but staff turnover led to rising caseloads for the investigators who stayed.
For now, advocates at TexProtects are approaching their legislative agenda for next year under the assumption that the caseworker turnover issue has been addressed.
“We’ll continue to monitor it,” McPeters said. “If we see a significant change between now and [the]session, we’ll definitely need to revisit it.”