Texas child welfare chief Hank Whitman announces retirement

He championed staff pay raises in the three years he spent at the helm of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Hank Whitman, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, during a March 22, 2018 Senate Committee on Health and Human Services hearing.

Hank Whitman, the former Texas Ranger turned commissioner of the state's sprawling child welfare system, announced Tuesday he will resign from his post at the end of June.

Whitman made the announcement in a YouTube video shared with staff at the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees the Child Protective Services, Adult Protective Services and foster care systems.

Whitman will perhaps best be remembered as an outsider with little experience in social services who shepherded the child welfare agency through a period of crisis by advocating fiercely at the Texas Capitol for pay raises for his frontline staff.

“We strengthened investigations by building expertise, improving processes and streamlining management,” he said in the announcement video. “We worked for well deserved pay raises for program staff to help reduce turnover and caseloads. And we made significant progress on many other fronts.”

Gov. Greg Abbott named the longtime lawman and former chief of the Texas Rangers to oversee the child welfare agency in April 2016. At the time, the agency struggled with a spike in the number of kids sleeping in state office buildings and in psychiatric hospitals amid a lack of safe placements. Child Protective Services workers, faced with massive caseloads, were failing to check on nearly a thousand highest-priority children — thought to be at immediate risk of physical or sexual abuse — every day. Runaway children were routinely found to have wound up in the hands of human traffickers.

And a federal judge had recently condemned the state's long-term foster care as an inhumane institution in which children "often age out of care more damaged than when they entered."

Abbott brought in the new chief after declaring that “the status quo at CPS is unacceptable” and that Whitman would “provide a new direction and focus that puts protecting children first.”

One of Whitman’s first moves at the agency ruffled feathers. He fired four high-ranking managers at Child Protective Services and ordered many of the remaining upper management staff members to reapply for their jobs.

At the same time, he lobbied the Texas Legislature loudly and unapologetically for new funding to hire staff and pay them higher salaries. Caseworkers are “not making enough money to do what they do,” Whitman told The Texas Tribune shortly after taking the agency’s helm. And while the state’s top Republican leaders — including Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — spoke dismissively of the “activist” federal judge who declared the state’s foster care system unconstitutional and ordered expensive reforms, Whitman said he didn’t disagree with her opinion.

In late 2016, the state’s top budget writers agreed to spend $150 million for emergency staff pay raises at the beleaguered Child Protective Services agency. And despite a tight-fisted legislative session in 2017, the Department of Family and Protective Services benefited from an infusion of state funding. Whitman testified later that year that agency morale had improved and caseworker turnover was down about 18 percent.

Whitman’s announcement to step down comes one day after the conclusion of the 2019 legislative session, in which he secured a more modest pay raise for workers in the Adult Protective Services system.

“Commissioner Whitman’s long-standing commitment to putting the needs of children and families first helped create a safer future for Texas,” Abbott said in a prepared statement. "Because of his leadership, DFPS is left better than he found it, and I extend my sincerest gratitude for his decades of dedicated service to the state of Texas.”

Whitman’s appointment was scheduled to end in September. In the video, he framed his departure as a retirement and did not specify a next career move. Abbott is expected to appoint a successor.