Editor's note: Correction appended
The man Gov. Greg Abbott has put in charge of fixing Texas' dysfunctional foster care system told state legislators on Wednesday he'd gladly take the brunt of their anger if it meant they'd give him more money to catch up on a backlog of 2,844 at-risk children awaiting the agency's assistance.
"You can beat on me all day, I'm a tough guy, beat on me, I don't care," Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman told the Senate Finance Committee. "But I'm telling you right now, we need help, and it's in a monetary way."
Beat on him lawmakers did at a hearing convened just days after Whitman revealed his $53.3 million proposal to overhaul Child Protective Services, a feat that may require an army of 550 new caseworkers and investigators to help save abused and neglected Texas children.
Committee members of both parties questioned Whitman about why he's asking for more money when the Legislature has given billions in the past with no improvements to show for it.
"I lose a lot of sleep over this, it sickens me," Whitman said. "It bothers the hell out of me. I don't get much sleep and my staff doesn't get much sleep. I see those little faces — I have children, I have grandchildren — and it bothers the hell out of me."
As of Oct. 17, among the 2,000-plus endangered children awaiting help from CPS, 511 were at the highest risk of being abused or neglected, according to the department. Whitman said some of the children are missing because parents move when they know agency officials are looking for them. Whitman said he was open to calling in law enforcement officials for help finding missing children.
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said with the agency in a "constant state of crisis" for years, the committee needed to understand how another infusion of money would help "get it right." She told Whitman he has the resources but he needs to find and use them.
"I'm not going to give one more penny until I know we are going to use this money to take care of our children properly," Nelson said. "It's unacceptable that we have 500 children that we have not laid eyes on."
Whitman said part of his funding request includes more money for special investigators who can find missing children. Starting next month, he said the process is on to hire 100 of them, with 40 in Houston and 60 in the Dallas area. He said they will take a more active role on sex-trafficking cases and deaths. The commissioner said new special investigator hires will be on an accelerated four-week training to get them into the field quickly.
"This is an extraordinary request, perhaps unprecedented, but this is for our children," Whitman said.
The commissioner's plan has faced criticism from legislators for not mentioning how he plans to hold onto caseworkers. Whitman told the committee better supervisors and mentors helping new caseworkers out in the field should help. He also told legislators he would be willing to revise his plans to better emphasize how low caseworker pay contributes to turnover.
Lawmakers have been incensed in recent months over news about the failing department. Two weeks ago, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus blasted Whitman in an Oct. 12 letter over reports that thousands of endangered children under the agency’s watch went unseen due to high-stakes cases and the agency’s inability to quickly hire, train and retain new staff. The agency is also facing mounting pressure from legislators over children and caseworkers sleeping in offices and hotels. The three state leaders ordered Whitman to figure out a turnaround plan to fix the problems.
Texas legislators are also awaiting recommendations due Nov. 4 from special masters brought in by a federal court. Last year, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled that Texas’ long-term foster care system violated children's civil rights. She ordered the state to hire special masters to come up with solutions, and lawmakers said they fear further federal oversight may be coming.
"We've lost the chance to make these decisions on our own," said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
Despite the department’s troubles and a looming $40 million state budget hole, legislators have expressed wariness about increasing funding next year without measurable progress. Whitman noted in his recent plan the agency is struggling to keep up with the demands of investigating child abuse and neglect cases. There has been a 10 percent increase in cases since 2014, according to Whitman. Department officials told lawmakers that there are 211 caseworker openings right now.
Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, wrote an Oct. 25 letter to Abbott, Patrick and Straus requesting they call on the Legislative Budget Board to find and give the agency $60 million to help boost caseworker salaries. Howard wrote that without salary increases Whitman’s plan is “no more than a temporary Band-Aid” that does not address how the agency will retain caseworkers. The board is slated to meet Dec. 1.
“With 171 children dying of abuse and neglect in 2015 — an increase from 2014 — and with thousands of children currently at risk of physical and sexual abuse despite being in the protection of the state, I see the current foster care situation as no less an emergency than our border security,” Howard wrote.
Ursula Parks, director of the Legislative Budget Board, told legislators that Howard's proposal was an option, but it could be tedious. She noted this move would require agreement from the board and Abbott along with other procedures for board members to take it up for a potential vote.
Whitman said caseworker pay is "not worth beans" and is asking for more funding next year partly so he can give raises, but committee members expressed skepticism about what role caseworker salaries play in the department's turnover crisis. Caseworkers made $38,500 in 2014 and special investigators, typically with law enforcement backgrounds, made $45,000, according to representatives from The Texas Sunset Commission, which reviews state agencies. While advocates have challenged that better wages may convince workers to stick around longer, some lawmakers are not sold that is the only problem. Caseworker answers in a survey conducted by the Sunset Commission mostly mentioned lack of mentoring, not feeling valued, being scared to voice concerns, favoritism and excess disciplinary action as opposed to coaching on how to improve.
"It is not the sole answer. Anyone who says it is flat wrong," said Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, when referring to caseworker salary increases.
Nelson appointed a work group, led by Schwertner, to look at Whitman's revised plan and scrutinize the agency's budget.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the source of information from a survey of Texas Child Protective Services' caseworkers.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that the children CPS considers at highest risk are those younger than 6. In fact, though the children in this category, known as "priority one," are often under 6, a priority one case can involve a child of any age about whom CPS has received a serious report.