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Typically, Texas Child Protective Services experiences sky-high employee and caseworker vacancy rates, but as unemployment has soared, staffing numbers have blossomed — stabilizing child abuse caseloads. Why the bad economy is good news for one state agency.

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At least one state agency is benefitting from the ailing economy: Texas Child Protective Services.

The child welfare agency, which has long battled sky-high employee turnover and caseworker vacancy rates, has seen staffing numbers blossom since the economy stalled out.

Statewide, turnover dropped from 31 percent to 24 percent between 2008 and 2009; in the last two years, it dropped by more than 10 percentage points.

These numbers are mirrored at the county level. Each of Texas’ four largest counties saw turnover rates fall by at least 8 percentage points over the last year; Dallas County’s fell by more than 12.

Child welfare officials say as unemployment has soared statewide, more caseworkers have stayed in their jobs, stabilizing child abuse caseloads. At the end of 2007, the average Child Protective Services caseworker had 31 cases at any given time; today, it’s closer to 23.

But they say they’re also doing more to keep caseworkers from leaving, including offering employee recognition programs and ensuring potential hires know exactly what to expect from the job.  

In fiscal year 2009, 215 fewer CPS caseworkers left than the year before, despite the fact that the agency added even more positions.

“It would be naïve to think the economy wasn’t a major factor,” said Darrell Azar, spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS. “But we think some of the things we were already doing had an effect as well.”

Over the last five years, the agency has added child abuse investigators and caseworkers, reduced its caseloads, and improved salaries and bonuses, the result of legislative reforms and nearly $350 million in new funding.  

But until the economy tanked, these changes didn’t have a large effect on employee turnover. Statewide, caseworker turnover grew from 23 percent in 2004 to 34 percent in 2007. Workers continued to cite stressful working conditions and low pay as their reasons for leaving.

Azar said it’s likely CPS will see job turnover increase as the economy improves and higher paying jobs open up in the private sector. But he doesn’t anticipate “returning to the high turnover rates we experienced when caseloads were twice what they are today.”

Child welfare expert F. Scott McCown, the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said it’s possible the struggling economy is just a temporary fix for caseworker turnover – but that there are reasons to think it will be permanent.

Because jobs are full, McCown said, fewer people are overworked. Because fewer people are overworked, they’re able to build experience and tenure without burning out. If it works, McCown said, the economic downturn will have given the agency a foundation to stand on.

“There’s reason to think that if we’re able to get a floor under the workforce, we’ll be able to maintain the numbers and the tenure,” McCown said.

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