Sixty percent of children whom Child Protective Services removed from birth families last year were placed in state custody because a parent was abusing alcohol or drugs, a key House social services policy writer said Wednesday.
Too few of the parents, though, receive effective substance abuse treatment, said House County Affairs Committee Chairman Garnet Coleman.
In many instances, the parents need a 30-day inpatient stay to kick their habit, said Coleman, a Houston Democrat. But they don’t have private insurance and aren’t savvy enough to get themselves enrolled in a government-subsidized program that can help.
So the parents keep relapsing and their children cycle in and out of CPS programs such as foster care and kinship care, he said, increasing the burden to taxpayers.
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At a hearing on CPS’ failings, Coleman called for a more concerted push by state agencies to steer more parents into treatment programs. The programs, mostly funded with federal dollars, are limited to low-income residents, he noted.
Coleman called for more state money on prevention and inpatient care for parents who get addicted.
“You’re talking about black tar heroin, Oxycontin, crack and heroin,” Coleman said. “We can’t get out of this problem unless we’re addressing these sorts of things.”
Lauren Lacefield Lewis, deputy associate commissioner for behavioral health services at the Health and Human Services Commission, said 4 in 10 Texas adults with addictions would qualify for the indigent substance abuse programs.
But in fiscal 2015, only 40,000 of the 690,000 adults eligible tapped the free services, she testified.
“When we are able to help these people in the gap, we head off a number of problems downstream, and that certainly includes Child Protective Services,” Lewis said.
Coleman said a better enrollment strategy and higher rates for Medicaid vendors who provide substance abuse services should be part of next year’s legislative overhaul of CPS.
Otherwise, the numbers of children removed and kids in foster care will continue to increase, he warned.
But his attempt to broaden lawmakers’ attack on the woes of Texas’ struggling child welfare system came as child advocates expressed alarm that Gov. Greg Abbott and legislative leaders can’t seem to agree on how to respond to an emergency request for more CPS funding.
The money would boost child maltreatment investigations by adding more front-line workers and giving them $12,000, across-the-board pay raises.
“The public, from the newspaper, would think the salary increase is already done,” said former state District Judge Scott McCown, who runs a children’s-rights legal clinic at the University of Texas at Austin. “It has not happened. We’ve got to close that loop.”
On Wednesday, spokesmen for Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Speaker Joe Straus and key GOP lawmakers offered no specific explanation for the delay — even though CPS asked for approval of a plan to add 829 new positions more than a month ago.
The agency wants to begin hiring the new employees on Dec. 1. It more recently asked leaders to approve pay raises. Those also were to begin Dec. 1.
“I don’t know what the delay is, but we need an action item before us immediately,” Sen. Jane Nelson, the Senate’s chief budget writer, said in a written statement.
She was referring to a tentative plan for handling CPS’ emergency funding request, officials said.
Under that plan, CPS’ parent agency and the Health and Human Services Commission would write letters to key legislators who track the state budget, asking for permission to shift funds from the commission to cover CPS’ new spending in the current two-year cycle.
Straus spokesman Jason Embry said the speaker and House members are working with Abbott and Patrick “to address workforce stability at CPS. Discussions continue about what form that plan should take and how much it will cost.”
Through their spokesmen, Patrick appeared supportive of a group of senators who recently urged a significant reduction in the agency’s emergency funding request, while Abbott seemed to push back on the senators’ proposed trims.
The five senators, all members of the chamber’s Finance Committee, proposed some changes and trims to the agency’s pay raise proposals, while urging that state leaders ignore — at least, for now — most of CPS’ request for new hires. The senators would allow hiring of 136 new employees.
Abbott spokesman Sam Taylor, though, said CPS leaders presented “a thorough, urgent needs request,” which Abbott supports.
“The agency is currently awaiting a unified response from the Legislature on Commissioner Whitman’s plan to ensure we can continue to implement reforms to further protect Texas children and eliminate child deaths,” Taylor said. He referred to state Family and Protective Services Commissioner Henry “Hank” Whitman.
Last month, Whitman asked state leaders to approve spending $144.5 million more at CPS in the remaining nine months of the current fiscal year to give $1,000-a-month raises to 7,087 front-line CPS employees and add the 829 new positions.
Whitman and several elected officials acted after The Dallas Morning News reported on widespread failures by CPS to swiftly check on tens of thousands of children at risk of abuse and neglect. Last month, after analyzing an agency database tracking initial visits with kids mentioned in over 7,300 child maltreatment cases in the Houston area, The News reported that through early September, half of children referred to Harris County’s CPS investigators weren’t being seen on time.
In 1 in 5 open cases, children weren’t being seen at all.
Each year, the agency loses about one-third of its investigative caseworkers, who quit because of low pay, staggering workloads and punitive bosses. Because of a shortage of foster care beds, each month, dozens of children in state custody sleep in CPS offices.
“I’ll give you the top three issues: salary, salary and salary,” said McCown, who has urged improvements at CPS for more than two decades.
CPS can’t begin to ease workers’ staggering caseloads until “we increase salary and decrease the turnover,” he said.
McCown urged lawmakers not to succumb to temptation to give a smaller raise than Whitman recommended. It generally raises new caseworkers’ salaries to about $50,000, which is right to stanch the exodus, he said.
“You don’t want to give too little, because every dollar that you give that’s too little is wasted,” he said.
Some House Republicans, though, questioned the abruptness of Whitman’s pay raise request — and his justifying it by saying a 3-year-old experiment with higher pay in Midland cut the turnover rate there by half. CPS’ “locality pay” there was used to ease a manpower shortage during the West Texas oil boom.
“You didn’t try it in Dallas? Didn’t try it in Houston?” said Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock.
On parents’ substance abuse, Coleman noted that in 2009, the Legislature created a new Medicaid benefit for treatment — mostly in response to the methamphetamine epidemic.
“If someone spirals down to poor and broke, if they have children,” they qualify for outpatient and inpatient help, he said — as long as they are under the federal poverty level. For an adult with two children, that would mean the maximum annual income is $20,160.
Commission spokeswoman Carrie Williams said she has “no data to share yet” on how many adults have been treated under Medicaid in the past five years. It must report that to lawmakers by Dec. 1, she noted.
Whitman, the former Texas Ranger who was tapped to run protective services by Abbott’s administration last spring, said the six months he’s spent on the job has “broken my heart.”
He agreed with Coleman that substance abuse is a driver of CPS’ problems.
“We have a serious drug problem among our children and the families that raise those children,” he testified. “Prevention is the key. … All we’re doing from the [department’s] side is putting a Band-Aid on it.”
CPS has only about $3 million a year to spend to buy treatment services for parents it’s working with — and who aren’t getting the help they need from other government-subsidized programs. Whitman has asked to increase that to $3.75 million a year.