Texas kids deserve better from state leaders

Josephine MacLean

A recent letter from Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Joe Straus to Henry Whitman, the director of Texas’s Department of Family and Protective Services, called the Department’s performance “unacceptable.”

There’s no doubt there are structural and cultural problems with DFPS’ Child Protective Services system, but the bottom line is that these problems cannot be fixed without adequate funding, and that can only come from the Texas legislature.

Abbott, Patrick and Strauss’ grandstanding memo is a way to turn CPS into a scapegoat, because they are the ones who have failed to provide Texas social service agencies with the resources needed to keep Texas children safe.

Texas CPS faces high caseworker turnover rates due to a system that focuses on paperwork rather than children’s outcomes and mistakenly uses a law-enforcement rather than social services approach to case management.

All of these factors contribute to horrific shortfalls in providing care, and cannot be addressed without enough capable, qualified caseworkers.

When it comes to social services, Texas gets what it pays for. In April, DFPS conducted its biennial Survey of Employee Engagement (SEE) and almost 65 percent of its employees responded. The number one greatest concern staff listed was pay.

Across the state, a CPS caseworker’s starting salary is approximately $33,800. This is abysmal, even compared to what other helping professions, such as teachers, make. In addition to low pay, caseworkers are sometimes given up to 70 cases at one time. The highest recommended number is 16–17.

In April, the Department reported a $40 million budget shortfall. In May, CPS lowered its requirements for hiring caseworkers: applicants no longer need to hold a four-year degree to be hired due to staffing shortages. Texas is the only state in the country that can say it has lowered standards this much.

Will Francis, a former CPS caseworker and the current government relations director for the Texas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, explained the logic behind this move. “Going backwards is a cost-cutting measure,” Francis said. “If you want to recruit the best, you have to pay the best.”

But Texas isn’t willing to do that. Legislators asked by the Tribune about whether there would be increased funding for CPS this session gave hesitant responses.

Representative Four Price, the chairman for the Appropriations subcommittee for Health and Human Services said bipartisan action would be taken only “if additional funds are absolutely necessary,” as if that necessity were still being decided and not painstakingly obvious.

Here at UT we’ve experienced the pain brought on by outcomes from this failed system. Meechaiel Khalil Criner, the 17-year-old charged with murdering freshman Haruka Weiser last year, had been in and out of the CPS system since fifth grade.

“That didn’t come out of a vacuum,” Francis said. “[He was] someone who slipped through the cracks. That’s an indictment of our system.”

According to the Department’s SEE report, 28.8 percent of the respondents “believe the information from this survey will go unused.”

Talk is cheap. We need action from Texas leadership. Call a special session, fund social services and stop passing the blame down the chain of command.

MacLean is an advertising sophomore from Austin. Follow her on twitter @maclean_josie