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Texas CPS Reformers: Cut Caseloads, Modernize Procedures

The Texas foster care system is in a crisis. How to settle the crisis has been a question for lawmakers, child advocates, and others. Now, two masters appointed by a federal judge in a class action suit filed against the state agency have issued their recommendations in a formal report.

A New York based advocacy group, Children’s Rights, filed a class action lawsuit against Texas in late March 2011 on behalf of about 12,000 children. In the federal complaint, they alleged that “Far too many children in the state’s PMC (Permanent Managing Conservatorship)–are subjected to immeasurable and permanent harm, and are deprived of the opportunity for a safe childhood, all while under the state’s care and protection.”

Thousands of Texas children are brought into the custody of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) after being abused or neglected in their homes. This custody, called ‘substitute care’ in Texas, is intended to be temporary, lasting only until a child can either be safely returned to their family or placed with another permanent family.

The advocacy group has been successful in 15 of its 19 previously filed lawsuits.

As reported by Breitbart Texas in mid-December 2014, testimony in the federal civil trial held in Corpus Christi cast even more shadows on the embattled Texas Children’s Protective Services agency (CPS).

Crystal Bentley, then age 23, spent 16 years in the Texas foster care system. She testified that she was shuffled from home to home from the time she was two years of age, until she “aged-out” at 18. She claimed she was repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted while she was under the watch of CPS caseworkers who frequently didn’t show up for monthly visits. Bentley claims that the assaults came from adults who were supposed to be caring for her, the children of foster parents and other foster children, and even her own relatives according to an article in the Houston Chronicle. When caseworkers did show up for monthly visits, her abuse would go unreported because they failed to speak with her privately.

Frequent turnover of caseworkers and management problems are to be blamed according to child advocates, CPS employees, lawyers for the children, and others knowledgeable about the system.

Judge Janis Graham Jack issued an order in December 2015 which was a blistering indictment of the system and ordered the State of Texas to enact reforms for its children’s services. The judge ruled that the long-term foster care system is improperly run and is a place “where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm,” as reported by the Dallas Morning News. The judge noted that the DFPS and the commissioner at the time had “the best intentions” but the system was underfunded. She called the long-term foster care system in the state “broken.”

The two special masters appointed by the judge in the spring of 2016, Kevin Ryan and Francis McGovern, released their list of recommendations on Friday.

The 13 page report filed in the case Friday (attached below), calls for cutting the loads of caseworkers by 50 percent. They reported that caseworkers should only have 14 to 17 PMC children that they are responsible for. If implemented, the measure would obviously require hiring more caseworkers. Acording to The Dallas Morning News, caseworkers are now assigned at least 30 cases each. The masters reported that manageable caseloads is tied to worker satisfaction and improved turnover rates.

Moreover, in order to make caseworker time more productively spent, their paperwork and the electronic filing system, “must become more efficient.” Caseworkers should be able to spend more than 26 percent of their time with foster children, they say. They also report that the child’s primary CVS caseworker must visit the child in-person or via available technology at least quarterly, in addition to the regular, in-person visits between the child and other assigned secondary caseworkers. The masters write that visits can be conducted using Skype, Facetime, and video conferencing, but should be “separate and apart from other children and caregivers.”

The report recommended in order “to reduce the risk of harm to PMC children that DFPS ensure that monthly face-to-face visits between CVS caseworkers and children in the PMC class occur as required and that DFPS report on same to the Court semi-annually. Former PMC children testified to not seeing their caseworkers privately and regularly, even as they suffered in placement and experienced abuse.”

To help address sexual and other abuse in foster care, the masters wrote that since the Court concluded DFPS shall “establish, staff, and maintain a 24-hour hotline for receiving and responding to reports of abuse and neglect,” they suggested that the hotline’s phone number be readily available and displayed prominently in all foster care residential facilities. Foster children must also have telephone access “free from observation.”

The Court also concluded that there was an unwillingness to institute corrective actions against violating facilities. To address that problem, the masters recommended that “to enhance transparency, and reduce the risk of harm to PMC children, that DFPS make public on the agency’s website all of the completed licensing inspections conducted by RCCL [Residential Childcare Licensing] and/or its successive entities, redacting child identifying information and other information deemed confidential under law and regulation.” They suggested that the DFPS post the full licensing inspection report.

The masters also recommended that “DFPS make public on its website all corrective action plans, required by RCCL and/or other successive entities, submitted by violating agencies. We recommend to enhance transparency and accountability that DFPS make public on its website the dates when RCCL accepts corrective action plans submitted by violating agencies and the status of corrective active plans.”

“As the Governor said months ago, he has a primary goal:  no more child deaths in Texas,” Gov. Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “The Governor fully supports Commissioner Whitman’s request for additional resources—including salary increases and additional case workers, as well as special investigators. We will continue working with the House and Senate to immediately secure additional resources to address the crisis facing our child welfare system and protect the children of Texas.”

On October 5, Breitbart Texas reported that the embattled state agency was suffering from more bad news. Texas law requires that a report of child abuse must be followed-up by Child Protective Services (CPS) investigators within 24 to 72 hours. Thousands of children were left vulnerable during those decisive hours. TDFPS spokesman, Patrick Crimmins told Breitbart Texas at the time, “Specific to the problem of not seeing children when abuse reports are made, the key to seeing more kids is to get more workers in the field asap. To do that, we have asked for 510 more investigative caseworkers and more CPS Special Investigators.”

The Department’s Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR) for fiscal years 2018-2019 includes a request for funding “above the FY 2018-19 baseline request for six exceptional items totaling $498.1 million general revenue ($534.0 million All Funds).” The LAR Administrator Statement provides, “New staffing requests total 1,823.4 FTEs in FY 2018 and 1,943.0 FTEs in FY 2019.”

“Governor Abbott and Commissioner Whitman have both clearly stated that the protection of children from abuse is a top priority. The data indicates CPS is falling short of that goal and we absolutely have to get better. These kids have to be seen,” said Patrick Crimmins, media relations manager for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (TDFPS).

In April of this year, Breitbart Texas reported that Texas Governor Greg Abbott appointed a former chief of the Texas Rangers, Henry “Hank” Whitman, Jr., as the new Commissioner of the embattled agency.

Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She has served as a prosecutor and associate judge in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2.

CPS Masters Report Filed in Federal Court Litigation

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