Amidst mounting criticism for child deaths in the state, the head of Family and Protective Services in Texas took hours of questioning from a State Senate committee, Wednesday.
Commissioner John Specia Jr. went before the Health and Human Services committee to discuss what needs to be done to better serve families and improve Child Protective Services (CPS).
“Frustrated workers leave,” said Specia. “If you can't go home and sleep at night because you're worried about people on your case load, then you find something else to do.”
According to Specia, CPS has struggled to attract and retain case workers who are willing to take on high workloads while making low salaries. In Texas, a case worker earns approximately $32,000, while a case investigator makes $36,000.
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“My job is hard,” Specia told lawmakers. “It's not anywhere close to as hard as any worker out there doing investigations in child abuse.”
Due to the turnover, many employees are juggling more cases than is typically recommended.
CPS recently came under intense scrutiny following the death Leiliana Wright, 4, from Grand Prairie. Wright died in March from blunt force trauma at the hands of her mother and a boyfriend, according to police.
An internal review prompted a special investigator with the agency to resign, while two other employees were fired. According to The Dallas Morning News, one of the case workers on Wright’s case was dealing with approximately 70 cases when he was assigned to Wright.
"I have to admit I'm stunned that we don't know how long it takes to handle an 'average case,'" said Sen. Van Taylor, R-District 8.
Specia explained they are studying the issue at the agency. He believes the recommended case load would likely range between 12-16 cases per person.
“You have funding for new cases workers. It's just that you cannot recruit them and maintain them,” said committee chairman, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-District 5.
Over the last two legislative sessions, Specia agreed that the lawmakers had allocated significantly more funding for the agency. However, the financial support does not diminish the number of cases agency workers are being required to maintain. Specia argued that is leading to turnover rates, which are as high as 54 percent in North Texas.
“In some ways, the demands of the workers keep growing,” Specia said, “But the number of workers don't. We fail them when their case loads are too high, and we don't give them the resources to do their job.”
Training a CPS case worker costs the state approximately $54,000. Given how many end up leaving the agency, Sen. Carlos Uresti suggested they consider raising the salary to entice workers to stay.
“It's millions of dollars we're spending every year to train these caseworkers. Even if we lower that turnover rate by 5 percent, 7 percent, we will save money,” said Uresti. “And more importantly, we will save kids' lives.”
Specia will be retiring from his position May 1. Lawmakers thanked him for his service to children in the state, a cause Specia said he will continue even after his departure.
The commissioner is one of five people overseeing and working for the agency who have announced plans to retire or resign in recent weeks.