By Hannah Lauritzen and James Norman
After a federal judge ruled in 2015 lawsuit that the Texas foster care system violated children’s rights, the state of Texas’ 85th legislative session made revamping the foster care system a top priority. They introduced a litany of bills for consideration, all of which had one aim: to privatize the foster care system and take the burden away from the state.
The big issues lie with the system’s social workers – or lack thereof. Andy Homer, public affairs executive director at the Texas Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), said the turnover rate for caseworkers has been 25 to 30 percent.
“We have such an awful turnover,” Homer said. “We’ve been plagued with the inability to keep the people we hire.”
Homer added it costs about $54,000 to hire and train a new worker.
“So we’re literally just pissing this money away when we hire these people and then the majority of them leave within two years,” Homer said.
This shortage of employees has piled more and more cases onto an already overworked staff. The Child Welfare League of America recommends that a caseworker should have no more than 12 cases at a time. Yet according to an investigation by the Austin-American Statesman, investigators have been known to manage upwards of 20 cases at a time. At one point in 2014, South Texas caseworkers had an average of 85 cases at a time.
The amount Child Protective Services workers are paid has also been an issue. According to the Statesman, from 2007 to 2015 the average salary of an investigator only increased by 6 percent.
Will Francis, government relations director for the National Association of Social Workers‘ Texas chapter further hit on the retention issue. He said the state needs to do better at keeping the workforce and developing it, as not doing so has overburdened caseworkers and caused unheard-of scenarios.
“We have kids sleeping in offices,” Francis said. “We have some major issues on caseload sizes.”
Francis also pointed out the 2015 federal lawsuit –Stukenberg v. Greg Abbott – as another “major issue,” saying he doesn’t think the state has done a great job in responding to the federal lawsuit. Texas has appealed the ruling on this case.
“I think [the Department of Family and Protective Services], is trying their hardest,” Francis said. “But I think in the legislature they’ve sort of avoided it.”
Raw data from the Austin American Statesman, interactive by Hannah Lauritzen
Senate Bill 11
SB 11, if passed, will assist social workers with their caseloads. The bill would also outsource CPS cases to a non-profit third-party entity in an effort to privatize parts of the service.
“The major provisions have to do with expanding and privatizing, to a greater extent the ‘Foster Care Redesign,” Homer said.
This redesign is the process that will aid in allowing the market to take on some of CPS’ work. According to DFPS, it will look to use single contractors “within various geographic areas” that will oversee the children’s living arrangements.
Homer mentioned that in region 3b, consisting of seven counties in northeast Texas and as of March 2016 1,392 foster children, private contractor Our Community Our Kids has had more success than the state system.
But the bill is not without its critics. Because of privatization efforts, the workload on the state is expected to lessen. This means letting workers go; About 3,200 of the 5,800 of them, according to an analysis by the Dallas Morning News.
Francis likes some parts of it but remains unsure about others. While supportive of the required medical examination provisions, Francis isn’t sold on privatization. He asked whether DFPS has done a bad job or an “underfunded job.”
If the bill passes, Francis said the role of the courts will come into question as well. If a case involving a child in the foster care system were to come up, the state is a party in the case. A private contractor is not. Therefore, it would be hard to tell how much power a judge would have to force a contractor to carry out services.
“Nobody really knows what it’s like to have a contractor in front of them,” Francis said.
Back in 2005, Texas legislature approved a program to test privatizing the conservatorship duties, by allowing private foster care entities to get involved. The program, however, never developed into anything further, and was repealed two years later. The bill had the initial goal of full privatization by 2011, and by 2007 wanted to limit the caseload of the workers to 45 cases a month.
House Bill 482
If passed, HB 482 will set caps on the caseload that each type of social worker in the system can have at any given time. Francis and Homer, however, are both doubtful that it will pass. Homer cited it as more of a “funding decision,” while Francis cited the bill’s history: rejection every time it’s filed.
Critics say the bill focuses on a resolvable issue – that DFPS should be responsible for capping the caseloads themselves, rather than through legislation.
But Francis is “incredibly supportive” of the bill. And while he acknowledges the pushback, he considers passing this legislation a step in the right direction.
“It’s a strong bill without mandates,” Francis said.
|Different Social Workers||Recommended Case Load Limit (Based on HB 482)|
|Caseworkers conducting CPS investigations||15 cases|
|CPS caseworkers (conservatorship programs)||20 cases|
|CPS caseworkers (foster and adoption programs)||20 cases|
|Child-care licensing inspectors||64 nonresidential child-care facilities or registered family homes|
|Child-care licensing day-care investigators||17 cases|
|Adult protective services specialists||22 cases|
|CPS caseworkers providing family-based services||10 cases|
SB 687 aims to target geographic areas that are more prone to neglect or abuse and apply prevention and intervention measures. SB 74 targets specific at-risk children and families and provides them with psychiatric care, while SB 495 would put a limit on unsupervised visits of parents or relatives with a history of abuse or neglect.
In the House, HB 634 would instate minimum educational requirements for CPS caseworkers while HB 723 calls for the establishment of county boards to oversee child protective services in those respective counties.
Despite the overwhelming number of legislation related to the issue, Francis is at times unconvinced that Texas legislators are tackling the issues in the way they should be.
“I think when it comes to the federal lawsuit we’ve danced around it a little bit,” Francis said. ”I don’t think we’ve addressed it the way we should. We don’t really like the federal government telling us what to do and I think that’s been a barrier.”