How will lawmakers fix CPS?

HOUSTON – State lawmakers are grappling with how to right an agency that is struggling to answer thousands of calls for help from abused and neglected children across Texas. Child Protective Services has been plagued by low morale, staff turnover and high-profile missteps.

Lawmakers are considering a proposal to raise the pay of CPS workers and add hundreds of new front-line investigators. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus have all agreed CPS needs help and needs it quickly. Abbott even referred to CPS as a “broken system” in April when announcing the appointment of a new commissioner for the Department of Family and Protective Services, CPS’s parent agency.

A review of CPS records by Channel 2 Investigates shows hundreds of children in dire need of help are not being seen by caseworkers each week. Children in the most danger are classified as Priority 1 cases. The state mandates caseworkers have a face-to-face visit with these children within 24 hours of being assigned the case. Children classified as Priority 2 cases must be seen within 72 hours.

CPS records show between March 28 and Nov. 14, anywhere between 91 and 97 percent of Priority 1 children were seen each week. However, this means a weekly average of 844 Priority 1 children, statewide, were not seen by CPS. State records show in Harris County, an average of 254 Priority 1 children are not seen each week.

When it comes to Priority 2 cases, CPS saw between 87 and 96 percent of these children each week. A weekly average of 3,607 Priority 2 children were not seen.

CPS officials told KPRC the majority of Priority 1 and 2 children are eventually seen, but could not provide specific details as to how long it took. CPS officials also said caseworkers sometimes have trouble finding a child because they are given incorrect information or the family moves.

To put a fine point on the agency’s struggles, CPS recently began releasing reports that include the number of children no one attempted to visit. A report Monday shows the agency had 13,466 open Priority 1 cases. Out of those cases, no one from CPS attempted to visit 297 children. An additional 202 children were not seen but someone from the agency did make an attempt. The report shows the remaining children were seen by CPS.

CPS reports also show the struggle to see these children within the mandated 24- to 72-hour time frame. Records show each week between 15 and 17 percent of Priority 1 children are not seen within 24 hours. For Priority 2 cases, the agency fails to see between 30 and 38 percent of these children within 72 hours.

“I can tell you children are not being seen,” said Sheila Hazley, a 30-year veteran of CPS who retired in August. “Therefore, we don't know what's going to happen to them.”

“Do you think CPS has the proper number of people to handle the number of abused and neglected children in this state?” asked Channel 2 investigative reporter Robert Arnold.

“Not at this time, no,” said Hazley.

Part of this problem is due to an annual 25 percent turnover rate of CPS's front line staff. This leaves the agency constantly scrambling to fill vacancies and contributes to mounting caseloads.

Child welfare experts recommend abuse and neglect investigators handle no more than 12 cases at a time. CPS records show investigators carried an average of 16.5 cases in fiscal year 2015.

“You do the best that you can do, you just go touch here and touch here,” said Hazley.

At the same time, the number of calls for help continues to rise and CPS records show the number of abuse and neglect investigations has gone up 10 percent since 2014. CPS officials said in Harris County investigations have gone up 14 percent.

In fiscal year 2015, CPS completed 176,868 investigations. Out of those investigations, 40,506 confirmed abuse or neglect had occurred.

“This is a plagued agency,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman.

Coleman is chair of the House County Affairs committee. He has held a series of hearings on the problems at CPS.

“The caseloads are not manageable because there are not enough workers, case managers and investigators to actually do the work,” said Coleman. “You always have the front line CPS investigator overworked, stressed out and on the verge of quitting.”

Coleman said low morale is another problem at CPS. Coleman points to a June 2016 survey of employee engagement at CPS. The survey shows 41 percent of employees are moderately engaged; defined as putting in “minimal effort.” The survey also shows 15 percent of employees were disengaged; defined as “disinterested in their jobs and may be actively working against their coworkers.”

Low pay, coupled with high caseloads, was cited as the main reasons for poor morale. A group of retired and current CPS workers gathered at a recent County Affairs hearing wearing “Pay Raise” buttons. CPS records show front line employees are paid a starting salary of $32,976 with a $5,000 stipend after the 120th day of employment.

“To be poo-poo'ed and shoved aside year after year has taken its toll,” said Susan Rial, a CPS employee with 18 years of experience who retired this summer.

Coleman said another concern created by high turnover is a lack of employee experience at CPS. In fiscal year 2015, CPS records showed 44.4 percent of front line staff had anywhere from less than a year to three years of experience.

“So the turnover is very high, which means the experience is very low, which means the operation is poor,” said Coleman.

Retired Texas Ranger Hank Whitman was appointed in April as commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services. He was blunt with lawmakers during a hearing Austin last week.

“We're losing four employees a day. You do the math on that,” Whitman said.

During his testimony, Whitman told committee members the agency needs to give CPS workers a $12,000 raise and hire an additional 550 investigators.

“I believe anything less than that, we're going to have problems, and I don't want to come back in two years and have them ask me, 'why isn't it fixed?'” Whitman told KPRC.

On the issue of pay, Whitman said some employees were having to save their vehicle maintenance allowance to make ends meet in their personal life.

“They save their money up, instead of buying tires, and doing the maintenance and buying the gas, to put food on their table. That's disgraceful,” Whitman told lawmakers.

Whitman said boosting pay, hiring more people and better training for incoming employees will help raise morale and lower turnover rates.

“When caseworkers are overworked, mistakes happen,” said Whitman. “It becomes a numbers game and the sensitivity issue goes out the door.”

A Senate finance committee recently proposed giving DFPS an additional $75.3 million to pay for the $12,000 raise and hire 136 new workers. However, since no plan has been formally approved, CPS is still waiting on the emergency infusion of resources.

In the interim, the Texas Department of Public Safety has been helping CPS track down at-risk children.

All of the issues dogging CPS were highlighted earlier this year when a 4-year-old Dallas area girl was beaten to death. Leiliana Wright was killed in March despite repeated calls for help to CPS by her grandmother.

“I called CPS, I called the governor, I called whoever could,” Alisa Clakely told Dallas TV station KXAS.

Clakely said CPS was slow to react to the danger her granddaughter was facing.

“My whole family called, friends called, I called them. I even sent the CPS worker the pictures and I was like, 'tell me something is not wrong,'” Clakely said.

Leiliana's mother and her boyfriend have been charged with felony injury to a child. CPS officials said two workers involved in Leiliana's case were fired and the third employee resigned.

“This was a tragedy that should never have happened,” said Clakely.