Texas Child Protective Services: A Profile in Incompetence and Dysfunction

June 30, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The ongoing incompetence of the Texas Child Protective Services has been revealed in part by the report of an organization hired by the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the agency and make recommendations. The Executive Summary of the Stephen Group’s report is here.

To a great extent, what the report reveals is what we already know, but made more concrete. The picture the report paints is one of an agency, whose job is to protect children from harm, that is so balled up in its own bureaucratic processes that actual flesh and blood children are all but forgotten. Into the bargain, no one who might be considering working for CPS would, after reading the Stephen Group report, consider it any longer. The report tells the tale of caseworkers who are so overworked and underpaid that 43% are gone before the end of their second year.

That of course means that huge numbers of caseworkers are simply too inexperienced to make the tough, often nuanced calls about which children need to be taken from their parents and which don’t.

But before I get into the awful details, let’s look at a few things of which the report says CPS is doing an “exemplary” job.

Many programs of change and improvement are under way, including Foster Care Redesign, streamlining policy and many more.

It’s good to see foster care being redesigned. Texas has a long and regrettable record of foster care that’s deadly for children. One group home south of Houston was finally removed from the agency’s list of placement facilities four years ago after the death of its sixth child in as many years. Since then the state tried privatizing its efforts at assessing foster care providers with the result that corners were cut, parents were insufficiently vetted and children died. So yes, foster care needs attention in Texas, but I have my doubts it’ll get the right kind.

Effective court relationships around the state.

That looks like a euphemism for “courts rubberstamp CPS recommendations.” I’ve done a fair number of stories about the arrogance of CPS caseworkers in Texas and more than one of them involve the clear assumption that either (a) courts would do just that or (b) their orders should be ignored.

Three years ago, a Houston judge, Michael Schneider, actually ordered two CPS caseworkers to write an essay proving to him that they understood the concept of due process of law as it relates to parents’ rights vis-à-vis Child Protective Services. When a judge does that, you know two things – that he’s really unhappy with those caseworkers and that they went into court assuming he wouldn’t object to their playing fast and loose with the Constitution.

The placement of many children found in volatile family situations with relatives so as to keep them as close as possible to their families.

That truly is a good thing. Opting for kinship care over other forms of foster care when a child is taken from a parent, is generally supported by the social science. Relatives tend to care better for a child than do strangers and usually the child knows them and is less traumatized by being taken from Mom or Dad. Going to Grandma’s house for a few weeks is altogether more agreeable to kids than to the care of people they’ve never met who may have children who resent an interloper.

Then there’s this zinger:

High adoption rate — earning the State $10 million in federal bonus payments in SFY2014.

Yes, we’ve seen this before. The federal government pays hefty bonuses to states for every child adopted out of foster care. On its face, that’s a good thing. After all, we want kids whose parents have had their parental rights terminated to get the permanent arrangement of adoption over the temporary one of foster care.

But of course, the federal largess leads to distorted motivations on the part of CPS. Federal money for adoptions out of foster care goes, not to the state government generally, but to CPS. That makes foster care adoptions a profit center for the agency – the more kids who are adopted, the more money CPS makes. And, as the report indicates, everyone’s watching. How much money CPS gets from Washington is an important issue. Here’s what a former state senator from South Dakota, Bill Napoli, said about the federal program three years ago.

“When that money came down the pike, it was huge,” Napoli says. “That’s when we saw a real influx of kids being taken out of families.”

“I’m sure they were trying to answer a public perception of a problem,” he said. “And then slowly it grew to a point where they had so much power that no one — no one — could question what they were doing. Is that a description of an agency that’s totally out of control? I would say so.”

An agency that’s totally out of control? That sounds like a fair description of Texas CPS.

But more to the point, it’s almost certainly an agency that, in order to get kids into foster care, bypasses fathers. The 2006 study by the Urban Institute entitled “What About the Dads?” found that in over half the cases in which a child is taken from a single mother, the agency makes no effort to contact the father as a potential caregiver. After all, the federal government won’t pay the state if the child winds up with Dad, so the agency just avoids him altogether.

Now, the Stephen Group report doesn’t go into whether fathers are contacted or not, but with that amount of money flowing to the agency, my guess is they aren’t. Ten million dollars amounts to between one and two thousand kids adopted out of foster care in a single year.

So much for the good news.

The bad news is mostly as we expected. Out of an agency of 5,400 employees, a whopping 1,300 + quit last year, i.e. 25.5%. No private company would last long with that type of employee attrition. In some quarters, far more employees quit than are hired. In the final quarter of fiscal 2013, a little over 400 new employees were hired, while a little over 500 quit.

The result of course is that existing employees inherit the cases of those who moved on. Oddly, the report makes no mention of average caseloads, but we’ve seen too often the fact that caseloads typically run at least twice the industry standard.

But excessive caseloads is far from the only – or even the main – reason why children at risk are often overlooked by CPS. The main reason is that a caseworker’s job has little to do with children and a lot to do with paperwork. On average, that caseworker spends just 26% of his/her time with children or families. The rest is spent in meetings, traveling to and from one place or another, and filling out forms either electronically or with the good old nineteenth-century pencil and paper.

Perhaps predictably, in such an atmosphere of dysfunction, CPS employees come to pay more attention to keeping their jobs than to the welfare of children. That means, above all, getting their forms filled out on time. Failure to do so can get them fired, so, running scared, they tend to spend more time in the office checking boxes than in the field with parents and kids. Remember the Houston caseworker who told a reporter she’d taken two children from perfectly fit and loving parents because they lived temporarily in a mini-warehouse? There was absolutely nothing wrong with the warehouse as a living situation, but it was off to foster care for the kids because the caseworker said she couldn’t justify keeping them with their parents to her supervisor. It’s the perfect bureaucratic mind set – first keep your job and worry about children’s welfare later.

Then there’s the fact that CPS caseworkers and management have at best a limited grasp of what policy for the agency actually is. It seems policies keep changing, are contradictory and few people really know what they are anyway. So most employees simply continue to do what they’ve always done.

Does management really know what’s going on in the agency? They’ve got all the data they could need, but that’s the problem – they’ve got far more than they can use.

[M]anagement has available 2,700 disparate data reports to try to make sense of what is often a fuzzy picture. This means that despite large quantities of data, it is useful primarily for historical analysis, not proactive decision making.

2,700! In other words, all that information can’t possibly be used to make the agency function better. Its best, and possibly only, use is to record what happened in the past.

Read the Executive Summary. There’s plenty more in it that damns Texas CPS, but the picture is of an agency that cannot begin to perform its most important function – the protection of children at risk. So when the next kid ends up dead despite being known to be at risk, don’t ask “why?” You already know why. It’s the inevitable result of an organization that’s entirely enmeshed in problems, mostly of its own making, but not entirely.

And the same holds true for children taken from safe homes. That too is the inevitable result of a dysfunctional child protective agency. Again, you don’t need to ask “why?” because you already know. Most of it’s right there in the Stephen Group Report.


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