Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders ordered the Department of Family and Protective Services Wednesday to ramp up efforts to protect endangered foster children and curb the backlog of ones waiting for homes.
Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus released a joint letter to department Commissioner Hank Whitman directing him to immediately develop a plan to hire and train more special investigators to take up the backlog of at-risk kids who have not had a face-to-face interaction with Child Protective Services. The lawmakers are also calling on the agency to create a hiring and training schedule to get more caseworkers out into the field and to continue working closely with community organizations. The lawmakers also called recent news of children sleeping in hotels and CPS offices “unacceptable."
The letter comes just eight days after DFPS publicly released numbers showing nearly a thousand at-risk children under CPS care were not checked on once over the course of six months. That report also found that caseworkers did not see 1,800 children within 24-hours of hearing reports of alleged abuse or mistreatment.
“We also will not tolerate inferior residential foster care operations,” the state leaders wrote in the letter. “The state’s residential providers must be held to the highest standards while caring for our most vulnerable or no longer operate in our system.”
While Abbott and other state leaders are calling on the agency to move forward on a plan regardless of budget concerns, it's unclear how soon the department will step up its efforts with a looming $40 million budget shortfall and already overworked caseworkers.
State leaders also directed Whitman to “reinforce the culture of accountability” by making sure staffers “rise to the challenge” ahead. The lawmakers gave a nod to the department's financial constraints but stressed "we have a responsibility to find and protect these vulnerable Texans as soon as possible."
Whitman said in an emailed statement that he appreciates lawmakers' "acknowledgement of the many difficult issues we face" but added that "protecting children is our highest priority."
"We have to do better," Whitman said. "All of our energies are focused on making this right and putting the safety and welfare of children first, no matter what."
Hours after the letter was released, Patrick called on the Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to receive the department's plans. Nelson quickly scheduled an Oct. 26 hearing of her committee to take up the issue.
"We need to better understand what investments are working and what improvements are needed," Nelson said in a statement. "We need an action plan that will keep children safe."
State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee for health and human services, said lawmakers will be watching for the agency to make improvements related to caseworker working conditions and retention alongside easing case load burdens. He said "it's premature to speculate" but providing the department with supplemental funding during next year's legislative session is "not out of the realm of possibility."
"I fully believe that the House and the Senate will prioritize the protection of children this upcoming session and if additional funds are absolutely necessary that will be considered by both groups," Price said. "I don't believe for a second either chamber will jeopardize the safety of children at the expense of the budget."
State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, thinks the situation at CPS is too dire to wait until next session. He wrote a letter to Abbott on October 5 asking the governor call a special session as "the scope of the problem has eclipsed the agency's ability to adequately remedy the situation without legislative assistance."
Kate Murphy, senior policy associate for child protection for Texans Care for Children, said in an emailed statement that "caseworker turnover and kids bouncing from one placement to another are challenges the state can overcome." She said while it was good to see state leaders alarmed about the department's challenges, it's also important to look at increasing caseworker pay and foster children access to health services.
"We're glad to see a bipartisan consensus that CPS needs additional funding starting in September of next year," Murphy said. "The Commissioner and state leaders should evaluate whether CPS needs more funding in the next 11 months to boost salaries and hire more caseworkers to start addressing the crisis right away."
Some advocates say workforce education is also going to be critical to fixing the department's problems.
Miriam Nisenbaum, executive director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said CPS needs a strong workforce with a variety of backgrounds in areas like behavioral health and social work. Yet a recent decision to scale back the agency's caseworker education requirements has undermined that goal.
The letter from state leaders released Wednesday ordered the department to hire more investigators with law enforcement backgrounds.
“I’m not sure a law enforcement background will give you the tools you need to work with the families a lot of the CPS workers end up dealing with,” Nisenbaum said.
Read more of the Tribune’s related coverage:
- The state’s child welfare agency faces a $40 million budget shortfall, a critical shortage of good homes for foster children and overwhelming caseloads for staff, agency leaders told state lawmakers at a hearing in April.
- In a wide-ranging interview, Hank Whitman, the new commissioner overseeing the Department of Family and Protective Services, explained how he thinks he can turn around a child welfare agency in crisis.