Abilene, Taylor County state reps vow to
Abilene, TX – Incoming state representatives for Abilene and Taylor County intend to tackle the myriad problems facing Child Protective Services when they take office in January, acknowledging that money is not a panacea.
The Legislative Budget Board’s recent authorization of $150 million in funding for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS, will help curb caseworker turnover by allowing the agency to hire more than 800 caseworkers and pay them more, leading to lighter caseloads for workers and more children getting the help they need, said DFPS Commissioner Henry “Hank” Whitman in an email.
Whitman declined in-person or telephone interviews with the Reporter-News.
But money alone will not “fix” the current system in place to protect the state’s most vulnerable children, said Republican state Rep.-elect Stan Lambert in an email, though he applauded the emergency funding. Lambert will represent Taylor, Nolan and Jones counties in the Texas House come January.
“It will take all parties coming together in the weeks and months ahead,” Lambert said. “This recently approved funding will help alleviate some of the backlog and will create more opportunities for cases of child neglect and abuse to move faster and be resolved more expediently.”
Part of that emergency funding request will go toward hiring 105 new foster care caseworkers, some of whom will be assigned to Abilene to meet the high number of children in foster care here, Whitman said.
Foster children have been sleeping in CPS offices, motels and emergency shelters because of a lack of suitable placements for them, he said. Currently, no children are sleeping in any Region 2 — which encompasses Abilene and Wichita Falls — offices.
“That is just not right,” Whitman said. “Too many good caseworkers are leaving CPS, and that puts more pressure on the ones left behind. It also increases pressure on the new hires coming in to perform at a high level immediately, and in many situations that is just not going to happen.”
State Sen.-elect Dawn Buckingham, a Republican elected in November to represent a region that stretches from Abilene to Austin, said she’s familiar with the problems at CPS from her time-serving on the state panel that evaluated its parent agency, DFPS.
“We knew (CPS) was a mess,” said Buckingham, who takes office when the Legislature convenes Jan. 10, pointing out that the Texas Sunset Commission identified gaps in accountability and high staff turnover.
Buckingham said money alone will not fix the agency, but she did agree that a salary increase likely was needed to address turnover and other issues.
“People are applying for those jobs,” she said. “Unfortunately, they are not staying very long.”
Buckingham said she looks forward to working with Senate leaders and stakeholders as they craft legislation to address the CPS crisis.
The crisis may not be as dire in Region 2 as it is in other parts of the state.
Although the region has had the highest reporting and confirmed victims of abuse rate per 1,000 in the state for the past five years, investigators make face-to-face contact with children at a high rate, Whitman said.
As of Nov. 28, 98 percent of children identified by CPS as at risk for abuse or neglect had been seen by a caseworker, he said.
Additionally, about 80 percent of regional investigations are completed and closed within 60 days.
“Child safety specialists review certain higher-risk investigations as secondary approvers, and since March 2016, Region 2 has had fewer investigations returned by a CSS as compared to the state overall,” Whitman said. “This indicates thoroughness and effectiveness in Region 2’s investigations.”
Whitman also applauded the region’s close collaboration with the faith-based community — 101 churches and nine ministries are registered for the CarePortal, a website that connects children in need with a church. Participating churches in Region 2 include Beltway Baptist Church in Abilene and First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls.
But Whitman acknowledged that caseworkers need more investigative training to do their jobs and CPS needs more special investigators to help them, which is part of the emergency funding request. He said his law enforcement background informed that decision because he is familiar with the “impact crime has on families, particularly children.”
Lambert said that crime is one of the “central causes” of child abuse and neglect that needs to be discussed more, in addition to substance abuse and mental health issues.
“As to future action to be considered, I would support funding to deal with the congestion these types of cases are creating in our family law courts,” he said. “Increased funding could expedite and shorten the time involved to identify foster care families and allow adoptions to occur.”
Only time will tell if the additional funding approved by the LBB will help or whether the incoming Legislature will take further steps to address the problems facing CPS.