The state of Texas in late 2016 approved funding and undertook other legislative measures to address caseworkers leaving their jobs at excessive rates. Additionally, caseloads were so high it made it difficult for caseworkers to check on some vulnerable children in a timely manner.
Children’s advocacy groups that have been pushing for reform 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.
Last year in Fort Bend County, 5,370 children were reported to Texas CPS as alleged victims of abuse or neglect. Investigators were able to confirm abuse or neglect occurred in nearly 15 percent of those cases, according to the agency’s numbers.
In 2013, 3,686 children in Fort Bend County were reported to Texas CPS as alleged victims of abuse or neglect, about 17 percent of which were confirmed by investigators. Within five years the number of child abuse cases reported to CPS in Fort Bend County jumped by 45.7 percent.
“More reports of abuse or neglect are being made,” said Tejal Patel, media relations specialist for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. “That means the community is looking out for each other and making a report if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected.”
As of September investigators have confirmed abuse or neglect in 436 cases in Fort Bend County in 2018.
But challenges still exist to alleviate pressure on the state and local foster care system, according to local child welfare advocates who have shifted their focus to addressing those issues in Fort Bend County and beyond.
Improving the system
In 2013, when the turnover rate of employees peaked at 32.9 percent, each CPS investigator in Fort Bend County was asked to work on an average of 22.4 cases per month, state data shows. The ideal caseload for a caseworker is between 14 and 17 cases per month, Patel said.
In 2017, after staff turnover rates improved, Fort Bend County investigators averaged 9.3 cases per month—a 58.48 percent decline from 2013, according to state data. The percentage of Fort Bend County children who were checked on in what the state considers a timely manner improved to 94.3 percent in 2017, up from 82.6 percent in 2013.
“Since the pay raises went into effect there has been a drop in turnover among caseworkers,” Patel said. “We are grateful to the Texas Legislature for approving a raise for the men and women who go out every day to ensure children are safe. This lets them know they are valued, their work is valued and boosts morale.”
Child Advocates of Fort Bend, an organization that matches abused children with Court Appointed Special Advocates and serves as a Child Advocacy Center, has seen a sharp increase in children coming in for forensic interviews, CEO Ruthanne Mefford said.
“I think it’s a true statement to say that CPS caseworkers are overworked,” Mefford said. “They have very high caseloads, and it can be very challenging, very difficult work. Increasing their salary was a beneficial thing primarily for retention of CPS workers. That’s important because then you have workers who you have more continuity with. They become more experienced and better-trained and so forth, so that continuity and all of that will help them do their job better.”
Keeping up with demand
Through September of this year CAFB has completed 1,053 interviews with children—a 77.57 percent increase compared to the 593 interviews completed by September of last year, Mefford said.
“Why are our numbers so big? Is it because of the incidence of abuse is going up? Or is it because the reporting of abuse is going up? We think the latter,” Mefford said. “There might be some increases of incidents, but we think the primary reason is because the reporting of child abuse increased.”
Senate Bill 1806, passed in late 2017, called upon professional reporters, such as teachers, health care professionals, and day care workers to send children who report abuse to a CAC to be interviewed, creating an increased need, Mefford said.
“Senate Bill 1806, which requires the children to be brought to an accredited CAC for the interview—that definitely has contributed to the increases,” Mefford said. “Secondly was when we were assigned the responsibility of reviewing all state intakes of child abuse, and that happened a couple of years ago. That really increased our numbers at that time.”
According to Patel the state’s definition of timely response rates varies by the stage of service. Once a report of abuse or neglect is made, Patel said an investigation is expected to take place within the next 24 to 72 hours.
“CPS interviews children, parents and others who know about the family to help determine if abuse or neglect happened, if children are safe, and to gauge the risk of further harm,” Patel said. “CPS investigators also consider physical evidence such as injuries, illegal drug use, and other factors such as lack of food or medical care.”
When CAFB is involved, it is encouraged to let the child wait until he or she arrives at the center for one forensic interview, Mefford said.
“When we work with the schools, CPS, law enforcement and community members, we say just document and report, and then bring the child here,” Mefford said. “Best practice is to just do one interview just with the child and a trade forensic interviewer.”
The majority of cases received at CAFB result in a child receiving services, Mefford said.
“For a child to speak out and to say something happened to them—it almost takes more courage,” she said. “It’s almost harder to let someone know than it is to be silent.”
By age 18, one in four girls and one in six boys have been abused; however, only 10 percent have spoken out, on average, Mefford said. As CAFB continues to receive more cases, the need for support has become greater.
“We need more volunteers,” Mefford said. “We need more volunteer diversity. We love also to have people who have been educators because they know children, and they are very good with children. We need more forensic interviewers and more therapists as well.”
For the upcoming legislative session in 2019 local organizations are looking into community needs to determine agenda items to request.
State Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, who is up for re-election Nov. 6, is looking to pass CPS legislation that focuses on the trauma each child experiences.
This would involve trauma-informed care training and other practices to be put in place throughout the CPS system, Miller said when asked what he would like to see discussed during the session.
During a legislative advocacy meeting Oct. 23, Texas CASA priorities for the upcoming legislative session included requesting an additional $2.25 million in annual legislative funding under the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Another top funding item included supporting continued legislative funding for family finding and collaborative family engagement under the Department of Family Protective Services at $643,600 for the 2020-21 fiscal biennium.
While significant progress may have been made during the last legislative session with regard to child welfare, local advocates hope progress will continue in 2019.