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Department Hopes Data Effort Will Help Reduce Child Deaths

The Department of Family and Protective Services has ramped up its efforts to conduct predictive data analysis and reduce the high turnover of CPS caseworkers, the agency’s commissioner told a panel of senators on Thursday.

John Specia (left), the commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, and Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek testify Feb. 20, 2014, at a Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing.

In the hope of reducing child fatalities in Texas, the department that oversees the state’s Child Protective Services division has ramped up its efforts to conduct predictive data analysis and reduce the turnover of CPS caseworkers, the agency’s commissioner told a state Senate panel Thursday.

“I don’t want to lose the fact that every child we lose is an individual,” John Specia, commissioner of Texas Family and Protective Services, told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. The panel met Thursday to address interim charges on Child Protective Services and women’s health.

Of the 804 child fatalities reported statewide in fiscal year 2013, 156 were related to child abuse or neglect, according to the Department of Family and Protective Services' presentation to the committee. Specia said 59 percent of those deaths were due to neglect and 41 percent to abuse, which includes blunt force trauma, stabbing and suffocation. The department had a documented history in 72 of those cases, and there were 23 fatalities related to open CPS cases at the time of death.

The department has hired someone to collect and analyze data related to those children’s deaths, Specia said, so that it will be better able to identify “red flags” and prevent future child deaths. The department’s current computer system is 17 years old, and it would take an additional $24 million to update it, Specia said.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the committee, said the state should have a computer system that analyzes the factors in a child’s environment and can inform caseworkers on a child’s level of risk. “We can’t just keep putting in more money until we start doing something different,” she said.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Kyle Janek said the effort would combine state and national data to find statistically significant trends to get more accurate analyses. The department has also implemented a “birth match” program to analyze new birth data and find parents who previously had their parental rights terminated by the courts. So far, it has found a dozen cases in which those parents had additional children, Janek said, and the department has been able to assess the safety of those homes.

“To take this human tragedy and break it down into numbers sounds cold, but I think the answer to help us tremendously is in those numbers,” Janek said.

The Legislature increased the department’s financing so it could hire 800 caseworkers in 2014. Specia said 81 percent of those workers have been hired and have undergone a three-month training program that began in September. Those caseworkers have started taking on cases and will be assigned full caseloads between April and June.

“I’m not pleased with how many we’re losing, but we have made some progress on that,” said Specia. It’s particularly difficult to maintain case workers in the Midland and Odessa area, he said, because the population boom created by natural gas drilling in that area has created a housing crisis. After their rent increased three-fold, caseworkers in that area asked to be transferred.

The starting salaries are $32,000 for a caseworker, and $36,000 for investigative caseworkers. In 2013, the Legislature also changed the first opportunity for a 10 percent raise to nine months, from 18 months, to keep workers who might quit at that point.

Specia said the department has also increased the number of unannounced home visits and conducts interviews with adult children to figure out who lives in the home or frequently visits.

“We’ve got to put objective, critical eyes on children and find out what’s going on in these homes,” he said.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, raised concerns that additional foster home screenings, and law enforcement checks have been proposed before. "It seems like it's the same old soup warmed over again. We're just using a different term," he said.

Katherine Barillas, director of child welfare policy at One Voice Texas, said in an email that child advocates are still concerned the department does not have adequate resources or policies to check up on foster parents or monitor caseworkers. “What is missing is accountability,” she said.

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Health care State government Child Protective Services Department of Family and Protective Services Health And Human Services Commission State agencies Texas Legislature