Senate Committee Tackles Rural Child Welfare

Child Protective Services officials got an earful on Wednesday at a Senate hearing on improving the caseworker retention and turnover rates in rural communities. And they got a minor scolding from Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who assumed they would come armed with more data and possible solutions than they did. 

Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Howard Baldwin told lawmakers that he had assumed his role at the hearing was to lay out the existing problems before a second panel — made up with representatives from the Fannin County Children’s Center, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and TexProtects — outlined the dangers of running at such high turnover rates and the need for more resources to reduce caseloads. 

One of the common threads echoed throughout the meeting was the need to reduce rural caseworkers' emotional stress through better allocation of resources, smaller caseloads and a stronger caseworker-supervisor relationship. Baldwin said the agency has relied on technology to improve communication in these rural areas, but Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Grapevine, said that can't replace the value of face-to-face interaction.

In 2006 and 2007, the statewide CPS caseworker turnover rate peaked at around 45 percent, with the majority of departing caseworkers citing difficult working conditions and problems with their supervisors. That rate has since dropped to about 25 percent. While it's an improvement, the state is still facing a five-year high in the re-abuse of children in the CPS system, according to Madeline McClure, executive director of TexProtects.

“Over 9,000 kids that came into our system in 2006 were re-abused within five years,” McClure said. “And those are the ones we know about.”

Possible solutions considered to improve caseworker retention include giving supervisors more input on hiring and improving staff salaries. Currently, Texas offers $5,000 more in annual pay for investigative staff versus non-investigative staff — a disparity that Jane Burstain with the Center for Public Policy Priorities noted could lead to new caseworkers to opt for a less suitable career.

Nelson said before lawmakers discuss allocating more money to the department, it should work on filling its 20 percent job vacancy.  

Wednesday’s public hearing on rural caseloads was followed by a brief update on the redesign of foster care to try to keep youth in familiar communities rather than relocating them to faraway foster homes.

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