By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Every night in Dallas County, about 2,800 abused or neglected children are sleeping in protective care. Each month, 100 to 150 children are removed from their homes. Woe to the Child Protective Services caseworker who leaves a child in a marginal home only to have him killed by a parent.
In the wake of the deaths of children left in their abusive homes, the Texas Legislature has pumped more than $200 million into the Child Protective Services agency to beef up the ranks of investigators. But the irony is that changes made in the system as it moves toward privatization have made children less safe than before, claim two highly placed administrators involved in child protection. More children are getting lost in the system than ever before.
"We're making prisoners out of victims," one administrator says. "It's horrible what we are doing to our kids. But they have no voices. They're not even in Dallas." (Frightened about what is happening, both agreed to talk freely as long as their names and titles were not used. Call them Dolly Madison and Bernadette Peters.)
CPS went on a hiring binge, giving investigators a $5,000 stipend. That was positive, but many experienced caseworkers jumped at the chance to make more money and became investigators. In addition to the usual burnout, that created even more turnover in the ranks of caseworkers.
An investigator keeps a case 14 to 30 days and then makes a recommendation to the court at a hearing attended by the "conservatorship" caseworker, who oversees the case until the child goes home, is adopted or ages out of the system. As caseworkers jumped jobs, the agency was forced to hire new ones with little experience, even in supervisory ranks, one administrator says.
"Five years ago, you had to have been at CPS five years to be supervisor," Madison says. "They can't find enough people now who have been there even two years. There's not a lot of depth there."
Add to that their caseloads. In Dallas County, investigators work 10 to 15 cases at a time. Conservatorship caseworkers may have as many as 45 cases—which may involve more than one child in a family—at any given time. They are supposed to see the child at least once a month and help the family get services such as counseling in order to get their children back.
The heavy load and extensive paperwork are daunting. "At one point last year," Peters says, "CPS was losing one caseworker a day."
The new ranks of investigators have brought even more children into the system. Combine that with the dearth of foster care. About 60 percent of children taken from their parents in Dallas County are placed in homes outside the county. Caseworkers are prohibited from traveling out of the county, so they rely on their counterparts in the home county to be the so-called "I see you" caseworker.
So the children are not only away from their parents' home, they are in another county and away from the only person who knows their circumstances. Given the agency's turnover—and the frequency with which children are moved from foster home to foster home—few of these caseworkers are around long enough to follow each child's progress. "It keeps them from building a relationship or knowing the child's issues," Madison says. "Our kids move around a lot. Every time they move they have a new 'I see you' worker and have to start all over again. There's a lack of accountability."
In Dallas County, the workers who handle adoptions have been cut from six units to three (three supervisors and their caseworkers). "If you keep bringing more kids into care with investigation and you take money away to get them out, what is going to happen?" the administrator asks.
Supervision over nonparental care has also suffered. "Sometimes in a rush to close a case they will place children with relatives who grew up in the same abusive environment," Peters says.
Some foster care homes are just as abusive as those the children left. One example is the 16-month-old child who was killed in a foster home in Corsicana in September after being placed in the home only a few days. There's nothing to prevent a foster care provider whose license has been revoked by one agency from going to another agency and getting approval. "Their record doesn't follow them," Madison says. "Children are being hurt more in foster care and certainly are being neglected."
The administrators' biggest worries involve drugs and "dumping." In recent years, the number of children in foster care who are on psychotropic medications has skyrocketed. "They say it's needed to control behavior," Madison says. "There are a huge number of children on drugs."
The other issue is one of neglect. "We're concerned that some of the foster parents are dropping these kids off at the YMCA or the boys and girls clubs, maybe every day after school or all day on Sunday," Peters says. Given too many children to handle, foster parents need a break. "But if you drop a child who is vulnerable somewhere all day, there's little supervision. A lot of these children have behavior issues and are easy prey for predators."
Scott McCown, head of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, told The Dallas Morning News that the current state of affairs is the worst he's ever seen. "We have grave concerns," he told the Dallas Observer. "Caseloads are way too high. If you don't correct that, then all the money you pour into training is wasted. They quit on you and you can't get anyone with experience. We need to develop a lot more foster care capacity. We could do better with rates, particularly with children who have higher needs."
With all its problems, CPS is now frozen. Privatization has been put on indefinite hold after a pilot program in San Antonio received only two bids. The agency isn't hiring more caseworkers. It can't overhaul the system without knowing what the future holds.
"Nobody knows what is going to happen," McCown says. "The state can't say because it is still in contract negotiations. I think we need to step back and re-evaluate this [privatization]. They really need to review whether they want to sell off our Child Protective Services through this outsourcing."
Administrator Madison points out that outsourcing Child Protective Services hasn't worked anywhere in the country. But something has to be done. "I don't know what it's going to take to create a sense of outrage," Madison says. She's afraid it will take a tragedy.