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.

Since then, conditions for CPS investigators, who look into abuse and neglect of children, have improved across the board—a fact acknowledged by children’s advocacy groups that have been pushing 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 their recent lows in 2016.

“Since the pay raises went into effect, there has been a drop in turnover among caseworkers,” said Tejal Patel, media relations specialist for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. “We are grateful to the Texas Legislature for approving a raise for [those] who go out every day to ensure children are safe. This lets them know they are valued, their work is valued and boosts morale.”

With lower turnover rates, caseloads have likewise decreased allowing caseworkers to respond quicker to reports of child abuse and neglect and spend more time dedicated to a smaller number of cases each month.

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 Montgomery County and beyond.

In Montgomery County in 2013, 5,036 children were reported to Texas CPS as alleged victims of abuse or neglect. In 14 percent of those cases, investigators were able to confirm abuse or neglect had occurred, according to state data. Last year, 6,908 children were reported to Texas CPS, 13 percent of which were confirmed—a 37 percent increase in total child abuse cases reported over five years.

“More reports of abuse or neglect are being made,” Patel said. “That means the community is looking out for each other and reporting if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected.”

Improving the system
In 2016, when the turnover rate of CPS investigators in Montgomery County peaked at 25.9 percent, each CPS investigator had an average caseload of 21.7 cases per month, state data shows. The ideal caseload is between 14 and 17 cases per month, Patel said.

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

On May 31, 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 11 into law, which became effective Sept. 1, 2017. The law 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 Montgomery County investigators averaged 15.8 cases per month—a 27 percent decline from average caseloads in 2016, according to state data.

The percentage of Montgomery County children who were checked on in a timely manner also improved to 85.7 percent, up from 81.5 percent in 2016. 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 ... 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.”

Love Fosters Hope is one organization that has advocated for reform. The Montgomery County-based nonprofit provides camps, mentoring and outreach programs to foster children.

“Retention of caseworkers has been an issue, and the pay scale has been on the lower end [in the past], so I think that’s definitely an improvement,” Executive Director Cindy Mericle said. “There’s no question that being a caseworker is a stressful job.”

Keeping up with demand
While improvements have been made within Texas’ child welfare system, more reports of child abuse and neglect are being made annually, meaning more children in the foster care system. While Montgomery County is home to a number of foster families, the majority of children have to be placed outside county lines.

As of August, Montgomery County has had 214 foster families recruited through foster agencies in 2018, plus an additional 22 foster homes recruited and trained by CPS.

However, the county had 309 foster children placements in August alone, of which 24.9 percent were placed within Montgomery County. The remaining 75.1 percent were placed outside county lines.

Patel said there are more than 700 children in foster care living in Montgomery County as of September.

“The demand for child welfare resources is growing exponentially,” said Dannette Suding, Montgomery County Youth Services CEO. “Last year we had to turn away 1,000 kids that needed our services.”

MCYS is a nonprofit that provides mental health and crisis counseling, crisis intervention and outreach services at five locations throughout the county. Additionally, MCYS has a 15-bed emergency shelter with plans to double the capacity in the near future.

Also struggling to keep up with the growing demand is the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Montgomery County, which trains volunteers to serve as advocates for foster children. Executive Director Ann McAplin said CASA had 324 advocates as of September.

“We’re one of only 10 counties in the state that is able to serve every child in the foster care system in our county,” McAplin said. “Between September 2017 and August 2018 we served 811 children—25 percent more children than we served the previous year.”

Additionally, Mericle said Love Fosters Hope opened a 10-bed emergency rescue home in April for children who have aged out of foster care and need a safe place to stay.

Looking forward
In the coming legislative session, child welfare 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,” Mericle said. “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.”

Advocates are also hoping for better screening when recruiting foster families. As someone who was in and out of foster care since she was 6 months old, Love Foster Hope volunteer Victoria Rodriguez, 21, said she is an advocate who speaks from experience.

“All of my foster parents just did it for the paycheck,” Rodriguez said. “They didn’t supply the food or love or support that you need. My self-esteem was destroyed.”

While progress may have been made to the state’s child welfare system during the last legislative session, local advocates said they hope progress continues in 2019.

“I hope legislators recognize that we have an issue here,” Suding said. “Just because there’s a lot of money in this area—that doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem [with child welfare].”