Child protective caseworkers in Texas only spend 26 percent of their job actually meeting with children and families, at a time when maltreatment deaths in the state foster care system spiked to seven in 2013, according to a report released Wednesday.
An outside review commissioned by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services comes as the agency struggles with rising caseloads and chronic staffing woes. Annual turnover in some regions is as high as 40 percent among caseworkers, many of whom are hired at a starting salary of $34,000.
"This report gives us an expert, objective view of CPS, and some of the findings are stark," said John Specia, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, which along with the Health and Human Services Commission hired the Stephen Group to conduct the four-month review." We now have a clear understanding of our strengths as well as our where we need to improve. The review found that we have great people, and it gives us a road map to become a great program that does its absolute best to protect children."
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Scrutiny surrounding the agency has become constant and intensified last year after the number of foster care deaths tied to abuse and neglect rose sharply from two in fiscal year 2012.
A new report from a New Hampshire consulting firm -- which cost the state $750,000 -- urges the agency to streamline office work and improve technology so caseworkers within a year are spending 40 percent of their time doing face-to-face field work.
"I've got to find ways to give them more time with families. You've got to do stuff that isn't with families, but 26 percent is way, way too low," said Specia.
Hiring an outside review is the latest effort by Specia's agency to publicly signal that it's trying to improve a system that oversees nearly 28,000 children in state custody. In April, the state began implementing new rules that will require mandatory interviews with neighbors and extended family when vetting prospective foster homes.
The report by The Stephen Group lays out suggestions on how the state can better recruit caseworkers who will stick with a job saddled with long hours, little pay and emotionally difficult cases. According to the report, the firm "was told by several caseworkers that CPS might be an employer of last resort for many candidates."
CPS said the reported also listed the following recommendations:
- Implement Sunset recommendation to halt work on 13 non-essential projects, such as regional workgroups, to re-focus attention on CPS' core mission of child protection.
- Reduce the current seven-day safety assessment process to 24 hours to better assess the risk to a child and intervene more quickly in the most serious cases.
- Make better use of available state databases to more quickly locate families.
- Improve the ability to find permanent homes for foster children who cannot be reunited with families.
- Improve materials and services for Spanish-speaking families.
- Work with the Legislature to eliminate or streamline laws that create unnecessary steps for caseworkers unrelated to child protection.
- Rewrite the CPS policy guide.
- Restructure CPS headquarters staff to sharpen the lines of responsibility and accountability.
- Assign cases based on the needs of children and families, and the capabilities of individual caseworkers, instead of randomly.
Texas has about 4,500 child protective caseworkers, who in 2012 handled more than 275,000 cases alleging child abuse or neglect.
"We even heard that some new hires take a position with CPS so they can have benefits while they continue their job search," the report read.