Texas CPS Says It's Made Big Progress With More Money and People, But It Draws Fire for Flub on Sherin Mathews

AUSTIN -- Turnover among Texas Child Protective Services workers and their workloads are at six-year lows because of $12,000 pay raises and new hires approved by state leaders a year ago and also because of improved training at the agency, its chief said Tuesday.However, state protective services commissioner Henry "Hank" Whitman acknowledged to Senate budget writers that he recently had to tweak CPS training policies and other procedures because CPS flubbed its handling of a doctor's report about Sherin Mathews last spring.In the future, if doctors specially trained to perform forensic child-abuse exams report strong suspicions of child maltreatment, CPS will go to court more quickly for guidance, Whitman told the Senate Finance Committee. He did not provide details.The October death of the 3-year-old girl from Richardson, who remained with her adoptive parents for months despite CPS's receipt of the doctor's statement asserting her broken bones were probably caused by those adoptive parents, generated most of senators' criticism of the agency at Tuesday's hearing.Also drawing fire was CPS's inability to check on children most at-risk of abuse and neglect within 24 hours of an allegation being assigned to an investigative unit with as high a frequency as senators have demanded.In cases deemed the most serious by the Department of Family and Protective Services' statewide intake center, known as "Priority 1" cases, CPS is making face-to-face contact with children about 89 percent to 90 percent of the time, explained Kristene Blackstone, associate commissioner for CPS.Because of reporting glitches and the flight of some families who are evading CPS, the actual failure rate for the agency is 2 percent, not 10 percent, she said.The agency still expects to make incremental improvements, Blackstone told Georgetown GOP Sen. Charles Schwertner. Last December, he was one of the senators who threatened to suspend authority to make more of the new hires if the timeliness rate for the checks didn't increase to 90 percent by May and 95 percent by August.Year's progressA year ago, Gov. Greg Abbott and House and Senate GOP leaders approved pay raises and new hires after The Dallas Morning News reported on widespread failures by CPS to swiftly check on tens of thousands of children named in maltreatment tips to the state hotline. In the summer of 2016 in the Houston area, children weren't being seen at all in 1 of every 5 open cases, The News found.Whitman responded by asking that beginning Dec. 1, 2016, and extending through the last budget cycle's final nine months, state GOP leaders pour $142.4 million more into CPS. He proposed $81.2 million of new spending, for across-the-board raises to many front-line workers and supervisors; and $61.2 million for hiring 829 additional employees.They agreed. In this year's session, lawmakers approved more than 500 more new hires and a net funding increase over the current two-year budget cycle of $494.2 million, including federal funds.Tuesday, Whitman thanked senators for the new funding. It's helped make a significant difference, he testified.There's "a new DFPS," with better working conditions and improved cooperation with law enforcement, he said.Between 2011 and last year, the agency lost about one-quarter of its caseworkers annually - child-abuse investigators, workers who help foster kids and "safety services" workers spending time with at-risk families to prevent removals, he noted.But this year, turnover has decreased to 18.4 percent, he said. Caseloads also are the smallest they've been since 2011, Whitman stressed."It has turned the morale around. There's a sense of buy in," Whitman said of the changes, which include frequent award ceremonies honoring workers at state headquarters in Austin and better training of new workers and their supervisors. "All they ever wanted was to be told that we care," he said.However, there's still a big exodus of rookie caseworkers shortly after they're hired, according a researcher with a leading child advocacy group.Just more than 30 percent quit during their first nine months on the job, suggesting the agency isn't being selective enough as it sweeps people into the many vacant and newly created positions, Dimple Patel of Dallas-based TexProtects testified. The group is the state chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America."Now that we have competitive salaries, we should be much more selective in who we hire," said Patel, a former Dallas CPS worker who is the group's associate director of public policy.Sherin Mathews caseOn Sherin Mathews, several senators said they were stunned CPS apparently ignored forensic doctor Suzanne Dakil's March report that a second series of X-rays and follow-up interviews with the adoptive parents persuaded her that the girl's injuries happened after she was brought from India to the U.S. -- with abuse the likely cause."It just boggles my mind that ... we have got a little baby that's dead when you have a doctor that's reported it," said San Antonio Democrat Carlos Uresti. "I'm having a hard time with this one."Flower Mound Republican Jane Nelson, the panel's head, and Houston Republican Joan Huffman, a former prosecutor, pressed Whitman for more details.Whitman said he could not speak freely out of fear he might jeopardize Richardson police's ongoing criminal investigation."A doctor saw this child and the child clearly had injuries that CPS needed to look at," Nelson said. "I don't want to read [of] that happening again."Whitman replied, "We have made some serious policy changes because of that."He said that if a doctor affiliated with a Forensic Assessment Center Network facility -- such as the one at Children's Medical Center in Dallas that examined Sherin -- "says this is ... non-accidental, then we need to start going to the court and figure out what we need to do." Describing another apparent policy change, he said that when a doctor's report of that type is received, supervisors and other higher-ups will need to be consulted immediately.Huffman asked Whitman, "Do you understand our frustration with this?""Fully understand," he replied.  Continue reading...

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