January 14, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
It’s not getting any better for the Texas Department of Family Services (Fort Worth Star Telegram, 1/11/15). And that’s saying a lot since things have been bad for a long, long time.
Most recently, the agency that supposedly exists to protect children from abusive or neglectful adults has been found by an investigative report by the Austin American-Statesman to have simply refused to report a whopping 655 child deaths over a four-year period. Yes, there’s a state law requiring the agency to make public details of every child’s death caused by abuse or neglect. But the Division of Family and Protective Services found an easy way around that; it simply classified the deaths as not resulting from abuse or neglect rendering the reporting requirements inapplicable.
In the process of course, the public remained ignorant of the truth, which, in all too many states, is just the way child protective agencies like it. We’ve seen the same thing in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Virginia and New York. Officials charged with protecting children find secrecy much to their liking. And why not? When you’re as incompetent at your job as many of those agencies are, hiding in the shadows is a pretty natural response.
In Arizona, once the facts became known, an astonishing 6,000 allegations of child abuse or neglect were found to have simply been ignored by the agency. In California, things are so bad that at least one state lawmaker has called for the entire “system” to be scrapped and the state to start from over from scratch. In the Lone Star State, the state child protective agency’s list of outrages winds far back in time. Seven years ago, one provider of group foster services was finally closed down after a sixth child died at the hands of employees. Three years ago the scandal broke in which Tiffany Klapheke was found to have simply abandoned her three children, all under the age of four. One died and the other were found close to death from malnutrition and dehydration.
Klapheke of course was known to by local CPS caseworkers to be a danger to her kids, but a year went by and her file was closed with no follow-up visit from the agency. Two weeks later, her children were found.
What was the response of CPS? Did they admit their errors and make changes to ensure that the same mistakes would be avoided in future? No. They stonewalled investigators, destroyed records and lied about what had happened. To date, two of them have been fired, others disciplined and a special prosecutor is still investigating the case. One regional director has been indicted.
Coincidentally, that seems to be all-too-standard procedure, as the American-Statesman’s report makes clear.
State and court documents also reveal that since 2009, dozens of state caseworkers have been caught lying to prosecutors, ignoring court orders, falsifying state records or obstructing law enforcement. At least four former state Child Protective Services employees are currently facing criminal charges for their alleged misconduct.
State officials insist those cases are rare: Employees accused of misconduct found by the newspaper represent a fraction of the 3,400 investigators and foster care workers in the agency. But the agency cannot definitively say how often it happens since it does not comprehensively track the number of people who were fired for such offenses.
Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that child protective employees do all those things and more. They, like most people, need their jobs and the sad truth is that those jobs have been made essentially impossible to do. Here’s a piece I did last June.
My post reported on the analysis of the department, done at the request of the state legislature by the independent Stevens Group. Needless to say, the results were alarming. For starters, an astonishing 43% of employees who come to work there are gone before they’ve been on the job for two years. Imagine trying to operate a commercial business that way.
The constant turnover of employees means there’s a steady state of inexperienced caseworkers. Unsurprisingly, they make mistakes that more experienced hands wouldn’t. And of course they have caseloads that far exceed industry standards, so they not only don’t handle those cases well but are encouraged to hide the fact.
But it gets worse. The administrative requirements of being a caseworker are so great that the vast majority of time is spent in meetings and filling out forms. That accounts for about 74% of the time of the average caseworker, meaning that only 26% is left to spend with families and children. It’s one thing to overburden employees with cases, but to then tell them to handle them in one-quarter of the workday is an ironclad guarantee that children will suffer and at least some of them will die.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s the fact that, at the higher reaches of the agency hierarchy, managers simply don’t know what agency policy is. Policies keep changing and there’s so little in the way of collective agency memory that employees aren’t sure what policies are in given situations.
Finally there’s the fact that, although the agency has all the information it needs, it can’t begin to use it to make effective change. As the Stevens Group report revealed last year,
[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.
This is how the State of Texas pretends to protect children who are being abused and/or neglected. Is it any wonder we now learn that those beleaguered caseworkers found it more expedient to simply not let on about 655 dead children. Who has the time to deal with the ramifications of making public a child’s death that might cast the agency and the caseworker in a less than flattering light? It’s just so much easier to check a different box on the form. That way the press doesn’t find out and no one asks inconvenient questions.
Well, it looks like some of those questions may start to be asked anyway.
"I’m speechless," Democratic state Sen. Carlos Uresti said. "I want to know who these kids are. Every one of these kids has a name and has a story and would have had a life ahead of them."
But however indignant Uresti and others may be, two contradictory things are certain; first, this is Texas and second, to improve matters in the agency, money needs to be spent. The state needs to pay employees a decent wage and give them only as many cases as each can reasonably handle. Do that and employee turnover will drop, resulting in a more experienced and competent workforce. But that means more caseworkers and more money for each. And Texas takes a backseat to no state when it comes to pretending it can do more for less. Don’t bet on the new governor kicking off his term in office by raising taxes or channeling existing funds to child protection. Do bet on further public outrage, continued high turnover, no meaningful change and politicians posturing for cameras about how bad things are at the Department of Family Services.
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