State changes improve child welfare in Harris, Montgomery counties

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The state of Texas approved funding and undertook other legislative measures over the last two years to address a series of critical problems in the Child Protective Services system.

Caseworkers were leaving their jobs at excessive rates, and caseloads were so high it made it difficult for caseworkers to check on some vulnerable children in a timely manner.

Children’s advocacy groups in Harris and Montgomery counties have acknowledged these improvements 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 their recent lows in 2016, according to state data.

However, despite the progress that has been made to the state’s child welfare system during the last legislative session, local advocates said they hope progress continues in the state’s next session, which begins in January.

“I hope legislators recognize that we have an issue here. … The demand for child welfare resources is growing exponentially,” said Dannette Suding, CEO of Montgomery County Youth Services—a nonprofit that provides mental health and crisis counseling, crisis intervention, and outreach services throughout
the county.

Improving the system

In 2016, prior to the latest legislative measures, the turnover rate of CPS investigators peaked at 21.6 percent in Harris County and 25.9 percent in Montgomery County. During that same year, CPS investigators worked an average of 20.3 and 21.7 cases per month in Harris and Montgomery counties, respectively.

Tejal Patel, media relations specialist for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said the ideal monthly caseload for a caseworker is between 14 and 17.

In response to the crisis, the Legislative Budget Board approved $150 million in emergency funding in December 2016 for the DFPS to hire 829 new caseworkers statewide and to give a $12,000 annual salary increase to existing caseworkers. The following year, the 85th Texas Legislature took matters one step further.

In May 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 11 into law, which created a Child Protective Services Legislative Oversight Committee and outlined several additional DFPS requirements, including the shift to a community-based care model.

In 2017, following the implementation of increased funding and new DFPS regulations, staff turnover rates improved, and Harris and Montgomery counties’ investigators averaged 17.9 and 15.8 cases per month, respectively, according to state data.

The percentage of Harris County children who were checked on in a timely manner also improved to 78.1 percent, up from 70 percent in 2016. Once a report of abuse or neglect is made, Patel said an investigation is expected to take place within 24 to 72 hours.

“CPS interviews children, parents and others who know about the family to help determine if abuse or neglect happened … and to gauge the risk of further harm,” Patel said. “CPS investigators also consider physical evidence … and other factors, such as lack of food or medical care.”

Keeping up with demand

While improvements have been made within Texas’ child welfare system, more cases of child abuse and neglect are being reported annually.

In 2017, 54,818 cases of child abuse were reported in Harris County, which is up 28.4 percent from the 42,688 cases that were reported in 2013. A similar increase occurred in Montgomery County, where reported cases rose from 5,036 in 2013 to 6,908 in 2017.

Martha Vieco-Garcia, communications and outreach coordinator at the Houston-based The Children’s Assessment Center, said about 5,000 of the reported child abuse cases in Harris County in 2017 involved sexual abuse. She said every case of child sexual abuse in the county is reported to the center, where children receive medical services, forensic interviews and therapy.

Vieco-Garcia said the number of cases the center handles annually has remained at around 5,000 in recent years; however, the number of cases involving human trafficking has increased recently.

She said the state tried to help address this issue during the last legislative session when it passed Senate Bill 1806. This measure requires child sexual-abuse cases reported by professionals, such as teachers, health care professionals and day care workers, to be reported to a children’s advocacy center, such as The Children’s Assessment Center, immediately.

The bill also outlined how children’s advocacy centers, law enforcement and CPS should work together on cases of sexual abuse.

“That was really [helpful]to what we do because it actually talks about exactly what [The Children’s Assessment Center] is supposed to be doing, how to do it and how to work together,” Vieco-Garcia said.

Looking forward

For the upcoming legislative session, state and local organizations are advocating for ways the Texas Legislature can continue to improve the state’s child welfare system.

During a legislative advocacy meeting Oct. 23, Austin-based Texas Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children discussed its priorities for the upcoming legislative session. These priorities include requesting an additional $2.25 million in annual funding under the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and $643,600 for the 2020-21 fiscal biennium to fund family finding and family engagement under the DFPS.

In Montgomery County, advocates are pushing for better training and education for both caseworkers and
foster parents.

“There needs to be required trauma training for caseworkers and foster families,” said Cindy Mericle, executive director of Love Fosters Hope, a Montgomery County-based nonprofit that provides camps, mentoring and outreach programs to foster children. “There’s been so much research on how trauma impacts these kids, and if everyone involved understood trauma better, they’re going to do a better job.”

Additionally some advocates would like to see the state build on bills that were passed during the previous session, such as SB 1806. Vieco-Garcia said The Children’s Assessment Center wants to continue defining the goal of the center and how it can better work with CPS.

In addition to further state measures, Vieco-Garcia said there are steps the center is taking to make improvements.

“About 90 percent of the cases we see, the perpetrator was somebody [the child]knew, like family or a teacher or coach—it was not a stranger,” Vieco-Garcia said. “We are working really hard on parent education and for the parents to get involved in their childs’ lives and asks questions.”

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Zac Ezzone
Zac Ezzone began his career as a journalist in northeast Ohio, where he freelanced for a statewide magazine and local newspaper. In April 2017, he moved from Ohio to Texas to join Community Impact Newspaper. He worked as a reporter for the Spring-Klein edition for more than a year before becoming the editor of the Lake Houston-Humble-Kingwood edition.
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