State senators vented anger Wednesday over Child Protective Services’ continuing failure to check on thousands of potentially vulnerable children.
The lawmakers pressed Gov. Greg Abbott’s CPS overseer to promise to rapidly submit a plan for immediately laying eyes on more than 500 children who the agency says are “at highest risk of being abused or neglected” but haven’t been visited.
Senate Finance Committee members also forced state Family and Protective Services Commissioner Henry “Hank” Whitman to acknowledge that higher pay for caseworkers is critical.
Under close questioning by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, Whitman said he agrees that better compensation for CPS workers should be an emergency budget item. Caseworkers, most of them college graduates, are paid starting salaries as low as $34,000.
Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who is the Senate’s top budget writer, pounced. She demanded that Whitman add higher pay to his plan for completing initial face-to-face visits with at-risk children who have been named in child maltreatment allegations.
“Are you revising your plan?” she asked him.
“I will,” he responded.
“Good. You’ve got until tomorrow,” she said.
Later, toward the end of the tumultuous hearing, Nelson said, “I’m dead serious, if it takes working through the night,” the plan is due by the close of business Thursday.
Late Wednesday, CPS supervisors said that Department of Public Safety officers were being mustered to find the children, prioritizing those at highest risk — and that CPS workers would be summoned to do assessments and paperwork if they did.
At the legislative hearing, Republicans as well as Democrats voiced deep frustration with Abbott’s new team atop the Department of Family and Protective Services, CPS’ parent agency.
Last spring, Abbott’s social services czar, Charles Smith, tapped Whitman, a former head of the Texas Rangers, and Kristene Blackstone, a longtime Abbott employee at the attorney general’s office, to overhaul CPS.
Nelson and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, complained that in their short tenures, neither Whitman nor Blackstone alerted lawmakers that CPS investigations were collapsing in Houston, much as they did last year in Dallas.
This month, after analyzing an agency database tracking initial visits with kids mentioned in more than 7,300 child maltreatment cases in the Houston area, The Dallas Morning News reported that through early September, half of children referred to Harris County’s CPS investigators weren’t being seen on time. In 1 of every 5 open cases, children weren’t being seen at all.
After the newspaper shared its findings with the governor’s office, Abbott and the two top legislative leaders, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, released a joint letter in which they condemned the agency’s failure to check on at-risk children promptly. They called for “action plans” that would “proactively prevent additional lapses in the required face-to-face visitations and interventions.”
But as of early last week, CPS investigators had not successfully completed initial visits with more than 2,800 Texas children named in tips to the state child abuse hotline, Whitman acknowledged.
Of them, 511 — including 161 in Harris County and 112 in Dallas — are children deemed “at the highest risk of being abused or neglected,” he said.
Statewide, among the 2,844 children not seen were 953 in North Texas and 814 in Harris County, according to his written testimony.
The disclosure triggered a passionate denunciation of the department’s performance by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.
He called for assembling National Guardsmen, state troopers, alcoholic beverage control officers, constables and sheriff’s deputies to “reach out and touch those 511 [highest-risk children].”
“And then don’t let it go back again” to recent, dismaying levels of kids unseen, he told Whitman.
But that will be hard to do. Child abuse complaints have increased — to about 240,000 a year, up from under 200,000 four years ago, department consultant John Stephen testified. Meanwhile, 211 caseworker positions are vacant, said Lisa Subia, the department’s chief financial officer.
On salaries, Whitman has appeared hamstrung. In his September budget request for the next two years, he inserted a “placeholder” about worker pay — with details to be filled in later. In his response last week to The News’ reports about unmade visits to children, he asked for permission to promptly hire 550 new front-line workers and 279 supervisors, support personnel and specialists in hiring and training. But he said nothing about pay.
Many child advocates say big raises are needed to stabilize the agency. Each year, it loses one-third of its child abuse investigators and about 25 percent of caseworkers who try either to prevent child removals or assist children once they’ve been taken from their birth families.
While Nelson hasn’t proposed a specific amount, she spoke approvingly Wednesday of a new CPS pay raise plan by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin.
It would increase caseworker salaries to between $47,000 and $52,000 in the 25 counties with the highest CPS workloads. That would cost an estimated $60 million a year, Howard has said.