The Dallas Morning News

Checks on at-risk children pick up

Pay raises, beefed-up staff helping reduce caseworker turnover

- By ROBERT T. GARRETT Austin Bureau rtgarrett@dallasnews.com

AUSTIN — Child Protective Services is making timely initial visits with Texas’ most endangered kids much more often than it did earlier this year.

And fewer front-line workers and supervisor­s are quitting.

Apparently cheered by $12,000 pay raises, an average of just 72 caseworker­s a month have left the agency since salary bumps showed up in January paychecks.

In the last four months of 2016, a whopping 131 caseworker­s quit on average, according to an analysis of data released by CPS’ parent, the Department of Family and Protective Services.

Key lawmakers welcomed the statistics, with some taking them as an omen that a longsought improvemen­t of investigat­ive performanc­e and employee retention at the troubled agency is finally under way.

“That’s progress. I’m thrilled to hear it,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who heads the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Houston Democratic Rep. Gene Wu called December’s $142.4 million cash infusion essential.

“Money doesn’t solve everything, but it solves a whole lot of problems when you have none,” said Wu, who belongs to a 12member House work group on CPS and foster care.

On Tuesday, the depart-

ment praised state leaders for giving it money to pay for salary increases and a green light for hiring 829 more employees at CPS.

“CPS across the board received an unpreceden­ted lift when the pay raises and additional employees were approved in December,” department spokesman Patrick Crimmins said in a written statement. “The governor and Legislatur­e deserve the credit for that, and for their continued very firm encouragem­ent that the performanc­e of CPS must improve.”

Seeing kids

Between March 19 and March 25, investigat­ors made face-to-face contact with 92 percent of “Priority 1” children within 24 hours, as required by law, according to the agency’s most recent weekly report to the Legislativ­e Budget Board. Priority 1, or “P1” kids are those mentioned in the most worrisome maltreatme­nt tips to the state child-abuse hotline.

In the first week of January, only 78 percent of P1 kids were being seen within 24 hours.

CPS regions anchored in Dallas, Tyler, Houston and Austin, though, continue to be below the 90 percent goal.

North Texas’ Region 3 performed the worst, seeing only 83.8 percent of P1 kids on time, while Harris and surroundin­g counties in Region 6 came in secondwors­t. They made timely visits to 86.1 percent.

It was the agency’s widespread failings to see at-risk children promptly that spurred Gov. Greg Abbott and GOP legislativ­e leaders to act.

Last spring, The Dallas Morning News disclosed that since early 2016, top Abbott aides and appointees had known that tens of thousands of endangered kids statewide weren’t being seen by caseworker­s promptly — and thousands weren’t seen at all. Dallas County investigat­ions, because of spiraling turnover and management miscues, descended into chaos, and Harris County was headed for trouble, possibly disaster, The News reported.

In October, the newspaper reported that half of children being referred to the Harris County CPS office weren’t being seen on time. In 1 of 5 open cases there, children weren’t being seen at all. The office’s chiefs offered ice cream and pizza parties for CPS units that improved. Some workers called the parties insulting. Morale plummeted.

Morale, staff gains

The CPS “critical needs” request approved Dec. 1 may have been a turning point.

“The impression that I’m getting ... from caseworker­s is morale is up. The pay raise certainly helped,” said Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

In the upcoming two-year budget, both chambers have included $292.8 million, including federal funds, to continue the agency’s “critical needs” push.

It involved giving $12,000 raises to about 6,000 existing caseworker­s and special investigat­ors, who are former peace officers; bumps of 10 percent to 20 percent to about 1,100 front-line supervisor­s and regional leaders; and letting CPS begin hiring 450 new caseworker­s, 100 new special investigat­ors and 279 new regional support staff, supervisor­s, and training and hiring specialist­s.

As of Thursday, it had hired 419 caseworker­s, 72 special investigat­ors and 145 of the others.

Meeting metrics

The agency’s ability to show it can recruit and retain workers, as well as see kids, may be critical in the final weeks of the session, which ends May 29.

“I credit Sen. Nelson for making sure that the performanc­e metrics are in place and that our agency ... is doing their job,” said Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican who is the Senate’s top CPS policy writer.

Largely at Nelson’s insistence, he said, the budget board, a group of 10 lawmakers who track the budget, insisted that $142.4 million granted for the final nine months of fiscal 2017 would “terminate within 30 days” if CPS didn’t meet three performanc­e goals.

It had to see 90 percent of P1kids within 24 hours by May1; make timely visits to 95 percent of them by Aug. 1; and put all current and newly hired supervisor­s through “supervisor training” by June 1.

Six leadership training courses have been launched at the agency since 2014. Almost 80 percent of CPS’ nearly 900 supervisor­s have been through a “strengths-based supervisio­n” course adapted from its counterpar­t in Arizona, the agency said in an update released Tuesday. New supervisor­s have gone through special courses, and are scheduled to take a Texas Christian University-sponsored seminar on child trauma May 2.

Nearly 40 percent of all supervisor­s have completed a new training on “cultural change and high performanc­e teams.” Regional-office bosses also will have to take it.

All 892 will have finished it by May 28, Crimmins said.

“We are very, very, very serious about getting supervisor­s trained because arguably, that’s the most important link in the chain,” he said.

‘Not done yet’

For 2018-19, the House has voted to give CPS money to hire an additional 733 people over the next two years, mostly to better serve foster children. The Senate’s budget includes funds for 382 new employees, also focused on improved supervisio­n of foster kids.

U.S. District Court Judge Janis Graham Jack has strongly criticized Texas because turnover among those CPS “conservato­rship caseworker­s” is so high, many foster kids can’t even identify their worker.

Uresti, who has helped write CPS policy for most of his 20 years in the Legislatur­e, urged colleagues to focus on two additional needs in the session’s remaining weeks: improved funding that would increase foster-care capacity, so children no longer have to sleep in CPS offices; and better targeting of resources on efforts to prevent abuse.

Uresti pointed to last week’s death of a 15-year-old foster girl who didn’t have a placement and was staying in a state office in Houston. The girl escaped from caseworker­s and was hit and killed by a minivan. CPS says there was nothing its workers who were baby-sitting the girl could have done to prevent the accident.

“This could be a historic session,” Uresti said. “It could be, but we’re not done yet.”

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