“When we became aware of the need, there was no question. We would get two or three calls a day about kids in need of a foster home, and that’s just in our little county,” Rachel Hardy said. “There are just too many kids [in the system] and not enough foster families.”
In Magnolia and beyond, the demand for child welfare services in Texas is growing despite progress made to the state’s child welfare system from legislative measures in the last three years, said Dannette Suding, CEO of Montgomery County Youth Services, a nonprofit that provides mental health crisis counseling, crisis intervention, and outreach services throughout the county.
The state of Texas has approved funding and undertook other legislative measures over the last three 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. Salaries in 2018 were 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.
“Since the pay raises went into effect [in 2016], 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.”
Despite progress, there are still problems within the system, Patel said. With an inadequate supply of foster homes, child abuse reports increasing and wrongful removal of a Tomball family’s foster children—which resulted in new caseworker training and a fine to the Department of Family and Protective Services—the problems did not suddenly disappear, she said.
Texas legislators have also already filed several bills for the 86th legislative session, which began in January, regarding improvements to the DFPS.
“I hope legislators recognize that we have an issue here,” Suding said.
Improving the system
Patel said the ideal monthly caseload for a caseworker is between 14 and 17 cases. However, CPS investigators worked an average of 20.3 and 21.7 cases per month in Harris and Montgomery counties, respectively, in 2016, as the turnover rate of CPS investigators peaked at 21.6 percent in Harris County and 25.9 percent in Montgomery County that year.
“[CPS caseworkers] are overwhelmed because they have all of these kids that need homes, so their caseloads are insane,” Hardy said. “I wouldn’t want to do [their job].”
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 another step further.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 11 into law in May 2017, 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, which is being rolled out to a few geographic areas at a time in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. The model is intended to give more flexibility in meeting the unique needs of children and families, according to DFPS information.
Following the implementation of increased funding and new DFPS regulations in 2017, staff turnover rates improved, and CPS investigators in Harris and Montgomery counties saw a decreased workload, averaging 17.9 and 15.8 cases per month, respectively, according to state data.
But in November 2018, Mike Schneider, Harris County juvenile court judge, ordered the state to come up with new regional training in the Greater Houston area for caseworkers and pay more than $127,000 for wrongfully removing a Tomball family’s foster children. The DFPS is appealing the fine, but caseworkers completed the training, Patel said.
“The training focused on having caseworkers dive deeper into the codes, policies and laws the department has as well as emphasizing the communication between caseworkers and parents every step of the way,” Patel said.
Another change to the DFPS has been proposed for the 2019 legislative session. House Bill 141—filed by
Rep. Mary González, D-Clint—would establish a minimum education requirement of a bachelor’s degree for CPS caseworkers. If approved, this bill would take effect Sept. 1.
Keeping up with demand
While improvements have been made within Texas’ child welfare system, and additional legislation has been proposed this session, more cases of child abuse and neglect are being reported annually, meaning more children are being placed in the foster care system.
According to state data, 54,903 cases of child abuse were reported in Harris County in 2017, which is up 28.6 percent from the 42,688 cases reported in 2013. Montgomery County saw a similar increase in which reported cases rose from 5,036 in 2013 to 6,920 in 2017.
As of December 2018, Harris and Montgomery counties had a total of 1,665 available foster or adoptive homes, according to state data. However, the counties had 2,433 total children in foster care. As a result, many foster children are placed outside of their home county, Patel said.
Patel said each foster family can have no more than six children in the house at one time, including biological children.
“The demand for child welfare resources is growing exponentially,” Suding said. “[In 2017 Montgomery County Youth Services] had to turn away 1,000 kids that needed our services.”
Martha Vieco-Garcia is the communications and outreach coordinator at the Houston-based The Children’s Assessment Center. 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 sexual abuse 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 in June 2017. This measure requires child sexual abuse cases reported by professionals, such as teachers, health care professionals and day care workers, to be reported immediately to a children’s advocacy center, such as The Children’s Assessment Center.
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 center] is supposed to be doing, how to do it and how to work together,” Vieco-Garcia said.
For the ongoing 2019 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 ongoing 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.
The DFPS also filed for a budget increase in August of $17.7 million in state funds for the 86th legislative session, a 1.3 percent increase compared to projected 2018-19 expenditures, according to the department’s legislative appropriations request.
“The budget increase would allow for additional resources to keep up with caseload growth and the demand for services,” Patel said.
Additionally, advocates in Montgomery County 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.”
Several state representatives have taken measures to improve the guidelines for CPS caseworkers and the system itself as well. HB 72, filed by Rep. James White, R-Hillister, would allow for the continuation of Medicaid benefits provided to children with chronic health conditions adopted from DFPS. Meanwhile, HB 45—filed by Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio—would create a mentor program for foster youth to develop better life skills and cultivate a one-on-one relationship with an adult mentor. Both bills would take effect Sept. 1 if approved.
As the demand for services increases, the demand for more foster parents increases as well, Patel said. The Hardys said they know not everyone can foster, but if anyone is able, the help is necessary—they have seen it firsthand.
“If we sat down, logically thought about everything and waited until we had the money, or we had the space or we had the time, it would’ve never happened,” Hardy said. “When you feel the prompting, and you see the need, you just have to jump in and go for it.”