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Child Protective Services chief: We need 550 more caseworkers

“Texas children remain at risk," Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman wrote. "This is unacceptable."

Henry "Hank" Whitman, new head of the Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services and a former Texas Ranger, testifies July 12, 2016 to the House Committee on Human Services about his new vision for the troubled agency.

Amid increasing concerns that the state is regularly failing to protect endangered children, the Department of Family and Protective Services this week asked state leaders for $53.3 million to hire 550 additional staffers. 

On Thursday, Department Commissioner Hank Whitman told state leaders in a letter that the agency is planning to hire a robust combination of caseworkers and investigators so that more children can be seen on time “and ensure that children who have sadly never been seen will finally be contacted.”

“Texas children remain at risk," Whitman wrote. "This is unacceptable."

The five-part plan comes after a scathing joint Oct. 12 letter from Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus prompting the department to take more drastic action and come up with a plan fast. 

State leaders have expressed outrage in recent months following reports of children sleeping in hotels and CPS offices overnight due to the lack of available homes. Whitman pointed out that a federal court ruling prevents children from being placed into foster homes without 24-hour supervision. A batch of poor-performing and closed residential facilities have also increased the burden.

“The result of this capacity issue is that the agency must enter into expensive child-specific contracts with providers that are not the best setting for children’s needs, or have children spend extended time sleeping in CPS offices, hotels, or emergency shelters,” Whitman wrote in his letter Thursday.

Whitman pointed out that one of the department’s pain points is the increase in Child Protective Services investigations in recent years. The agency has seen a 10 percent increase since 2014, according to the letter. Whitman said CPS has made progress on the issue but “it is important to make clear that my expectations are not being met.”

While Whitman put a price tag on implementing his proposal, he did not mention how his team will crunch the numbers to make it happen. The department is already facing a $40 million budget shortfall as well as an ongoing difficulty retaining caseworkers due in part to low pay. 

Stephanie Rubin, CEO for Texans Care for Children, said in an emailed statement that she was glad to see CPS' latest plan but that "hiring and retaining caseworkers without higher salaries is going to be a challenge."

"It's great that state leaders are now focused on improving abuse investigations, strengthening at-risk families, and supporting kids in foster care," Rubin said. "We need to make sure the focus on accountability goes hand in hand with a boost in funding now and in the next budget."

State legislators have said they would potentially consider funding increases for the department when they return for session in January.

“Members of the House and I will review this proposal promptly and visit with CPS about its impact so that we can act in the very near future to help these children,” Straus said Friday in a statement about Whitman’s plan.

Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said being a caseworker is one of the hardest jobs. He said he was not ready to comment on whether 550 new workers was the right number but added that he trusts Whitman knows what he is doing. 

"It's really hard, very sensitive, very demanding emotionally, and you're dealing with obviously gut-wrenching situations and cases," Raymond said of being a CPS worker. "There's always going to be some level of turnover. Part of what we’re looking at is, are there things we can do to hold on to folks for a long time?" 

The Senate Finance Committee is slated to meet Oct. 26 to discuss the department's ongoing problems. 

Under the department's blueprint, new hires will be dispersed across Texas, but there will be an intensive effort to deploy many of them to Dallas/Fort Worth, Harris County and Travis County, three areas  where the agency has struggled to keep up with its number of cases, according to Whitman.

Besides new hires, DFPS also plans to continue outreach to faith-based households to become foster or adoptive families. Earlier this week, Patrick announced plans to host the Faith Leader Summit on Nov. 2 to discuss how churches can help. The agency is looking to the summit as a prime opportunity to bolster its efforts.

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Child Protective Services Department of Family and Protective Services