The state of Texas last year approved funding and undertook other legislative measures to address a series of problems in the Child Protective Services system. Caseworkers were leaving their jobs at high rates, and caseloads were so high that it made it difficult to check on some children in a timely manner.
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 were reported to Texas CPS as alleged victims of abuse or neglect. In 2016, when turnover was highest at 38.6 percent, caseworkers worked an average of 18.5 cases per month.
Denton County CPS saw significant improvements in 2017 with turnover dropping to 25 percent and workers averaging 16.3 cases per month. Workers also saw an increase in their salary with the average monthly salary increasing from $3,398.48 in 2016 to $4,135.40.
Marissa Gonzales, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for North Texas media specialist, said the drop in turnover rate is directly correlated to the legislative measures.
“People are more willing to stay if you increase their benefits and decrease their workload,” she said. “The extra funding has allowed us to add more workers.”
NEED FOR MORE CPS WORKERS
Although conditions are improving for CPS workers and the state is working to help reduce turnover, Kristen Howell, Children’s Advocacy Center for Denton County CEO, said the six CPS workers, who office at the Lewisville location and handle all of CAC’s sexual abuse cases, need more help.
Howell said the center saw a 30 percent increase in the number of forensic interviews—in which children are interviewed about alleged sexual abuse—in 2017 when compared to 2016.
“We have seen a shocking increase,” she said. “In 2016 we had 643 forensic interviews conducted, and in 2017 we had 836 forensic interviews; that’s an almost 200-person increase.”
Howell said the center is on track to complete 1,000 interviews this year. Last year, the second largest group of children to do an interview came from Lewisville with the largest amount from Denton.
With Denton County continuing to grow Howell said she anticipates the need for more CPS workers to be housed at the CAC as well as more services, which is why the Lewisville location is adding 11,000 square feet of new space to be finished in 2019.
“Our [CPS] unit is fully staffed for the first time since I’ve been here, but it’s not enough.” she said. “I still think our workers are being overworked. At what point will we get more CPS workers? Even with the additional space we have, [the state] said they do not anticipate any further additions to our team.”
Not only can the county use more CPS workers but also more foster homes, according to Lishawa Jackson, program director for CPS investigations in Denton County.
Jackson 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.
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 is 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 case- work 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.