Agency commissioners rarely get applause when they ask the Legislature for an additional $263 million — but that’s what happened on Thursday when John Specia testified to the Senate Finance Committee on the need to redesign aspects of the Department of Family and Protective Services.
“What I’m asking for in my exceptional items is not fluff, it’s what I believe we need to do the job,” said Specia, a senior district judge who was appointed executive commissioner of DFPS in November. He asked for additional funding to handle caseload growth in foster care and child protective services, address staff retention problems, improve investigations to proactively address child abuse and unlicensed day care centers, and strengthen preventative programs to keep children out of foster care.
“I would hate for this to wait for two more years. If we can tackle it now, I’m willing to look for way to help you with this,” Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands and chairman of the committee, said in response to Specia’s testimony. Williams added that he was willing to help the agency figure out “what would it take to truly overhaul this system … [and give staff] the tools and the flexibility that they need to do their job.”
Staff retention is an ongoing problem, Specia said, because after spending money and time training young workers, most get burned out by the emotional hardships of the job and leave after eight months.
“They make life and death decisions on a daily basis, 24/7,” Specia said, after describing an incident on Wednesday in which two workers conducting an investigation went to a home to find the mother of two young children had just been shot. “This is a very dangerous job. This is I think the hardest job in state government."
Specia, who set up the Bexar County Children’s Court with specialized services for children during his two-decade tenure on the bench, said his primary concern is child abuse and neglect deaths in Texas, which totaled 212 in 2012, or “one every other day.”
In his three months at the agency, Specia has implemented new procedures — like payment bonuses or caseload reductions for staff considering leaving — and signed the first contract to privatize some foster care services, part of a redesign lawmakers approved in the 2011 session.
“I am so grateful that you are willing to do this. … I love your philosophy,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, pointing out that unlicensed child care was a particular concern to her. She asked how Specia’s proposal to hire 45 additional workers would help address the issue.
“Unlicensed care, illegal care, is a disaster waiting to happen, and we’ve seen some terrible things,” said Specia, giving the example of one teenager who cared for 36 children at a time. He said that if the agency had additional workers, it could seek out unlicensed facilities, rather than wait for referrals of abuse.
“We need to be proactive and looking out on Craigslist,” he said. “People are desperate for day care, and when they see day care at a cheaper price, sometimes they don’t understand the risks they’re taking.”