Texas CPS should cut caseloads in half for workers who help foster kids, advisers tell judge

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Director Henry “Hank” Whitman has sought about $100 million more to increase state pay for the lead vendors in foster care redesign and to expand a more privatized approach, which includes pay for performance, to 10 areas by 2019
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Director Henry “Hank” Whitman has sought about $100 million more to increase state pay for the lead vendors in foster care redesign and to expand a more privatized approach, which includes pay for performance, to 10 areas by 2019 Austin American-Statesman

Texas should cut in half the caseloads of Child Protective Services workers who monitor Texas children removed from their birth families, two appointed advisers in a class-action lawsuit urged Friday.

CPS “conservatorship” caseworkers nurture and advocate for children who have been removed because of abuse or neglect, and such workers should have no more than 14 cases each, said court-appointed special masters Kevin Ryan and Francis McGovern. Currently, though, they average about 30 cases each. And that’s a lowball estimate, some child advocates say.

In a filing in federal court in Corpus Christi, Ryan and McGovern also urged U.S. District Judge Janis Graham to keep applying pressure for Texas to make scores of improvements to its system of long-term foster care. They range from simple — keeping up-to-date photos of each child in the state’s database — to very costly.

While the special masters mentioned no dollar figures in their report, the Legislature could be forced to spend hundreds of millions in coming years to better supervise, house and tend to the mental and physical healthcare needs of about 12,000 abused and neglected children.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, the New York-based lawyer responsible for filing the suit, praised the masters for a thorough analysis.

Lowry has sued many states for inadequate foster care, and she called Texas’ “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

She also made no apology for any budget burdens the suit, filed 5  1/2 years ago, may impose.

“When you talk about price tags, the state has spent a lot of money on these kids and yet they are leaving the system to sleep on rooftops and to prostitute themselves so that they can eat,” she said.

CPS’ parent agency, the Department of Family and Protective Services, is already “working day and night” on some of the issues Ryan and McGovern emphasized, noted department spokesman Patrick Crimmins.

They include “building more capacity for high-needs children in foster care, constantly seeking ways to improve healthcare for our children and making sure our caseworkers spend more time with children and families,” he said.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican who heads a special Senate work group that’s weighing CPS’ emergency request to hire 829 new employees and grant $12,000 raises to front-line workers, said many of the special masters’ ideas are “appreciated.”

But while offering no clues about how lawmakers will respond, Schwertner echoed state GOP leaders’ view that the suit infringes on state turf.

“We all acknowledge the need to make improvements in how [the department] operates, but ultimately the responsibility for solving this problem lies with the Texas Legislature — not the courts,” he said in a written statement.

Jack, who has ruled that Texas’ system is “broken,” appointed Ryan and McGovern to help her fashion a final order in the case.

The order, which may be months in the making, is expected to require better record-keeping and supervision of the children; more rigorous regulation of more than 300 private vendors who help care for the youngsters; and more generous reimbursements, to encourage higher caliber foster families and institutions — preferably, a shorter distance from the kids’ home communities.

Perhaps the most costly fix identified by Jack and the special masters will be hiring, training and holding on to enough CPS conservatorship workers. Their job is to appear in court, create treatment plans for children who are in state custody and then to visit them at least once a month, as required by the federal government, which pays for a good chunk of the cost. Conservatorship caseworkers — or “CVS workers” as they’re known in agency shorthand — track foster children and children being kept with relatives and family friends in what is called “kinship care.”

In the last fiscal year, they averaged 29.7 cases each, according to department figures. In Dallas County, caseloads averaged 31.4; and in Tarrant, 30.4. At 39.7 cases per conservatorship worker, Travis County had the highest urban county workload, the data show.

On Friday, the masters told Jack that an internal study completed by the department last spring found that caseworkers who manage children who are in the agency’s “permanent managing conservatorship,” or PMC, spend an average of 9.7 hours a month working on one child’s “case profile.”

With the workers having an average of 139.7 hours a month to spend on their casework, the ideal caseload is about 14, they said.

“Although we do not recommend a fixed caseload cap, which would inhibit [the department’s] ability to assign cases, we do recommend the Court adopt [the departments’] own finding and we recommend [it] implement a caseload standard in the range of 14 to 17 PMC cases for CVS caseworkers who are assigned to the role of serving PMC children and who work full-time in that role,” the masters said.

Dallas child advocate Madeline McClure praised the masters’ recommendation of dramatically lower caseloads.

“Thank goodness!” McClure, who is founder and director of the nonprofit advocacy group TexProtects, said in an email.

She said CPS understates the conservatorship workers’ caseloads by making “fictive workers” out of the CVS workers’ overtime and also counting help they get from regional placement unit employees and others

“My best guess is at least 35 kids each on average,” McClure said.

In a preliminary ruling last December, Jack strongly criticized the state’s treatment of about 12,000 children who have been in CPS’ legal custody for at least a year to 18 months.

At a hearing in March at which she chose the special masters, Jack noted that many children don’t even know who their assigned CPS worker is. That’s because the worker rarely visits and turnover among the state workers is sky-high, noted the judge, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton.

She also said the department lacks usable, coherent electronic case files on the children, despite forcing workers to spend endless hours reporting data. Worst of all, CPS often places the children in foster homes and institutions where they are again abused and neglected – and sometimes assaulted and raped, Jack said.

Texas has an “inadequate placement array,” the judge has said.

The special masters noted that the department expects to complete a “needs assessment” by January.

Foster care vendors’ pay should be based on performance, the masters recommended.

They said within 12 months, the department should complete a what’s-next study for the experimental procurement model known as “foster care redesign.” That should include an evaluation of the “capacity of providers across Texas to serve as” the lead vendor, a role played by ACH Child and Family Services in Fort Worth and six nearby counties.

Jack wanted the state to hire more inspectors to look into conditions — and especially alleged child abuse — at residential foster care facilities. The department should be required to submit various plans about improving the department’s regulation of vendors, the masters recommended. At minimum, residential centers immediately should have to install landlines for foster children to use in reporting maltreatment to the department’s Child Care Licensing division, they said.

Many Texas children linger in the system for years and then are emancipated when they turn 18 — often ill-prepared to fend for themselves. Because of that, the masters said CPS should start preparing them for “aging out” as early as when they turn 14.

How much it would cost to comply with the masters’ recommendations — if Jack adopts them all — is not spelled out in the report.

But hiring a lot more conservatorship caseworkers potentially would cost the state tens of millions a year. Also, in his two-year budget request in September, department chief Henry “Hank” Whitman already has sought about $100 million more to increase state pay for the lead vendors in foster care redesign — and to expand the more privatized approach, which includes pay for performance, to 10 areas by 2019.

One child advocate, Kate Murphy of Texans Care for Children, stressed that the masters’ report is a road map for fixing only one piece of a mess at CPS and Texas foster care – bringing up to “a minimal standard” the care of children who are awaiting a permanent home for at least a year or 18 months, if not longer.

“The crisis on the side of CPS that investigates possible child neglect and abuse [and] the backlog in investigations is not part of the federal lawsuit,” she said in a written statement.

As both attorney general and governor, Gov. Greg Abbott has vigorously defended the state’s performance, saying it’s fixing shortcomings in foster care.

Since December, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to stay Jack’s injunctions and appointment of special masters.

The state has criticized her for effectively starting a federal “takeover” of the state’s child welfare system and for ordering the department to pay the masters as much as $345 an hour for their work.

Ryan is a former New Jersey Commissioner of Children and Families. McGovern, a Duke law professor, is a veteran mediator and class-action lawsuit special master.

Jack is expected to allow the state and plaintiffs’ lawyers to make objections to the masters’ report. She then could hold a hearing before issuing a final order. That could come as early as late January or early February. The state is expected to appeal, meaning it’s highly unlikely that the matter will be resolved before the end of the Texas Legislature’s session next May.