Two Texas Family and Protective Services leaders exiting beleaguered agency

A Texas Department of Family and Protective Services caseworkers badge hangs off her neck as she prepares to assist on a case for the agency in 2018. (Pu Ying Huang For The Texas Tribune, Pu Ying Huang For The Texas Tribune)

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A high-ranking official at the crisis-plagued Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is abruptly leaving, six months after rejoining the agency and several months before her contract was set to expire.

And Julie Frank, the chief of staff for the agency’s top leader, is also no longer employed there, a DFPS spokesperson told The Texas Tribune on Friday afternoon.

Executive Deputy Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein will exit her role after Nov. 20.

Heiligenstein was the DFPS commissioner from 2008-11. She has been on “loan” to DFPS from Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit that works with state governments on child welfare systems, to serve as the executive deputy commissioner until June 2023.

Heiligenstein was brought back to DFPS earlier this year amid concerns about the department’s leadership under Commissioner Jaime Masters. In March, the former child care investigations director at DFPS resigned after he said top agency leaders inaccurately characterized who was to blame for the mishandling of abuse allegations at a state-contracted center that cares for victims of sex trafficking.

Heiligenstein’s return to the agency was welcomed when it was announced earlier this year. Heiligenstein joined DFPS as an executive in May, but she is still an employee of Casey.

“Our relationship with Casey continues to be strong, and they are a valued partner,” said Patrick Crimmins, a DFPS spokesperson.

Crimmins declined to answer further questions about the two departures.

The leadership shakeup comes as a staffing crisis continues to plague the department. Since the beginning of the year, more than 2,300 employees have left the child welfare agency, the Houston Chronicle reported. Departed workers have described a belabored agency and poor management strategies that leave children at risk.

DFPS is also the subject of a yearslong federal lawsuit over Texas’ troubled foster care system, which U.S. District Judge Janis Jack found has violated foster children’s civil rights.

In 2020, Jack held state officials in contempt of court on two occasions for not making enough progress on her orders, which included timely investigations of abuse and neglect in foster homes. Jack has repeatedly criticized the state’s slow reform of the foster care system, which has found children in the care of DFPS sleeping in offices, given the wrong or improper doses of medication, sexually abused or engaging in self-harm.

A recent legislative report found that Texas should prioritize placing children in foster care with families rather than residential treatment centers. Residential treatment centers are meant to be a last resort for children in the state’s care, reserved for those with histories of severe trauma caused by neglect or abuse.

Heiligenstein’s working relationship to Masters is unclear based on a DFPS organizational chart. The two are linked with a dotted line, but Heiligenstein is not listed as Masters’ direct report. The chart shows Heiligenstein’s areas of focus include child protective services and child protective investigations, but the associate commissioners of those departments report directly to Masters.