Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Special masters hired by the state to scrutinize the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services say the embattled agency should increase its focus on improving the timeliness in seeing children under its care — one of about 56 recommendations it made in a report released Friday.

In their 13-page report, special masters Kevin Ryan and  Francis McGovern also discussed the need for improvements in updating children's health records and limiting caseloads for Child Protective Services caseworkers.

The long-awaited report comes almost a year after 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. 

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While the report is only a recommendation, lawmakers have expressed concern in recent months that further federal oversight of the agency is inevitable without changes.

Earlier last month, state leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus directed department Commissioner Hank Whitman to come up with a plan to present to the Legislature. But that overhaul plan, with a price tag of more than $60 million, made Senate Finance Committee members fume over costs and question if the agency had been efficiently spending its allocated dollars.

Whitman is banking on the idea that training and hiring 550 new workers will help with caseloads. The agency is also under intense scrutiny about being unable to find missing endangered children and having some children sleep in hotels and CPS offices until the agency can find them a home.

The governor's office and the Department of Family and Protective Services didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the report.

Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the department, said in an emailed statement that the state "has made improving foster care a priority and will continue to do so."

"Today's report highlights many of the issues we are working on day and night: building more capacity for high-needs children in foster care, constantly seeking ways to improve health care for our children, and making sure our caseworkers spend more time with children and families," Crimmins said.

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The report recommends some changes in areas that the agency has already faced pressure from lawmakers about, including CPS worker caseloads and high turnover rates in the agency. Investigators are recommending that caseworkers have between 14 and 17 cases. They said a cap on caseloads “would inhibit DFPS' ability to assign cases.”

Caseworker turnover, an ongoing pain point for the agency, is also addressed by the federal investigators. Caseworkers should slowly build up the number of cases they have through the first nine months of onboarding into the department, according to the report.

The report also points out that more outside training and mentorship for new hires would be helpful with caseworkers. Investigators also suggested that each supervisor should manage no more than five or six caseworkers at a time.  Those recommendations are similar to what Whitman has been working on before the report was released. The commissioner told Senate Finance Committee members during an Oct. 26 hearing that the agency is working to hire better supervisors and already have mentors helping new caseworkers out in the field so they have someone to talk to about the situations they’re witnessing for the first time.

Though DFPS struggles to quickly investigate child abuse allegations, special masters are recommending ways for them to find out about these cases faster. That includes developing a statewide reporting or hotline system, just like the Texas Abuse Hotline, for people to report alleged child abuse and a separate 24 hour hotline for children to report if they’re being harmed.

The report also suggests that residential treatment centers and foster homes have a landline for children to use the 24 hour number. The investigators are recommending these changes go into effect right away.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, the lawyer responsible for filing the DFPS lawsuit, said that Texas' foster care system is "if not the worst, one of the worst I've seen."

She said the agency needs to develop caseload standards for workers and provide more intense oversight of homes and providers they contract to weed out bad seeds. While the report does not address other problems such as reports of children not in the system yet who are in danger, Lowry said the recommendations are "very strong," "helpful" and "well-informed."

"There are different legal issues that are involved with children who have not yet entered care," said Lowry, who is also the founder of A Better Childhood, a nonprofit focused on legal advocacy for child welfare issues. "The Texas foster system has a huge number of problems, and you can't necessarily address all of them in one lawsuit. This was a very large lawsuit because it looks at how children have been treated in foster care for a year or more."

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The special masters say the the agency can better serve older children aging out of the system. In 2015, the department reported that 1,180 children were emancipated from the program.

Investigators are recommending the agency start the transition plan process for 14-year-olds, including helping them obtain a driver’s permit and license, working with attorneys to get certain juvenile and criminal records sealed or expunged, goal-setting and skill-building, and making sure they are signed up for any benefits they may be eligible for like Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance for the poor and disabled.

Kate Murphy, child protection policy associate for Texans Care for Children, said in an email statement that the report appears "on the right track" but that "the steps outlined in the report are not intended to chart a path to a highly effective foster care system."

She said the items the special investigators are recommending would bring the state up to minimum standards. She also pointed out that the backlog of children who have not been seen by caseworkers is also not addressed because that's not part of the federal lawsuit.

"The blueprint is aimed at ending the trauma caused by the foster care homes where the state sends kids that are removed from their families," Murphy said.

"State leaders will have to do more to make sure that kids in foster care heal from the trauma they've already experienced and grow up healthy. As the state implements the steps outlined by the Special Masters to fulfill our legal obligation, there will be much more work to do to fulfill our moral obligation."

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, said in a statement that the legislature would continue working on fixes for the agency. 

"We appreciate many of the recommendations announced today and look forward to continuing our efforts to reform the state foster care system in a way that ensures the best possible outcomes for the children of Texas," Schwertner said. "I think we all acknowledge the need to make improvements in how DFPS operates, but ultimately the responsibility for solving this problem lies with the Texas Legislature -- not the courts."

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the report's findings were unsurprising but "a real step toward fixing our unconstitutional and broken foster care system." He said he hopes the agency sees the recommendations as a roadmap they can start working on right away. Many of the problems, he said, were noted in Whitman's recent proposal to overhaul CPS, meaning it could take a significant boost in state spending to fix things.

Lawmakers should look at the recommendations "not with the standard being, 'Is it going to cost money?' Instead, let the standard be, 'Is this going to make children's lives safer?'" Watson said. "If we go by that standard I think we get somewhere and I think the court and constitution has said that's what we need to do."

Read more of the Tribune's related coverage:

  • Hank Whitman, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to fix the state's dangerous and dysfunctional foster care system, says he needs more money to get the job done. Some lawmakers aren't convinced.
  • One day after lawmakers challenged his plans for retaining caseworkers, DFPS chief Hank Whitman asks for even more money to raise salaries.

 

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