SAN ANTONIO – Two former investigators for Child Protective Services describe the agency as one in need of an overhaul but full of employees who are passionate about helping abused and neglected children.
Roadblocks, however, stand in their way.
For years, critics have described CPS as a broken system, but both former investigators disagree.
“It’s not broken. It's in crisis,” said Sondra Ajasin, who worked as a CPS investigator in Bexar County from 2011 to 2012.
Prior to her time in South Texas, Ajasin worked as an investigator for the equivalent agency of CPS in Arkansas and for CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Today, Ajasin is the founder of Trulight 127 Ministries, a licensing agency and support provider for foster families.
She left CPS because the nature of the job left her wanting more.
“I kind of just felt like there was an emptiness not knowing what happened to the kids once they left my caseload,” she said.
Ajasin says her average caseload was 30 at a time and each case potentially involved multiple children.
“Sometimes it entailed going out to 14, 15, 16 different addresses trying to locate children,” Ajasin said.
Each time, she remembers not knowing what was behind the next door.
“I’ve sat across from Mexican Mafia members,” she said. “I’ve sat in homes where there were guns lying out on the table."
“You have 30 days to do 30 cases. To get them all investigated, all interviewed, talk to neighbors, talk to the cops if you need to,” Ajasin said. “Its a lot of paperwork, which needs to be done for tracking purposes. I agree with that. But it's nearly impossible unless you really don’t sleep very much.”
Heavy caseload has long been a criticism of CPS and a reason given for the high employee turnover rates in the past.
It is one of many issues former CPS investigator Carrie D. Wilcoxson is trying to change.
Wilcoxson is part of the policy team for State Sen. Carlos Uresti that is helping to draft legislation she hopes will make positive changes to CPS.
From 2006 to 2009, she worked in a specialized CPS unit in which she investigated Priority 1 cases, the worst instances of alleged abuse and neglect.
"You never forget any of them,” Wilcoxson said. “And that’s no exaggeration. You really don’t.”
Before leaving the agency, Wilcoxson moved to another unit that handled a broader range of cases.
That's where she noticed a troubling trend: investigators operating in what she called “a mode of fear.”
“There's a fear,” she said of CPS employees. “They're not selling cable. They're dealing with human lives and, in some cases, life and death. There is always that fear of, ‘What happens if we don’t? What happens if we don’t go out there? What happens if we don’t cover every single base?’ And so that fear can cause some of the caseload backlogs.”
Wilcoxson said some cases that may not meet the criteria for a full blown investigation, perhaps because there are no signs of abuse or neglect, are treated the same as cases in which a child is in grave danger, therefore taking time and resources away from the investigations that require extra time and attention.
Senator Uresti's policy team drafted Senate Bill 190, which would allow such cases to be closed sooner.
Asked what that would do for an investigator, Wilcoxson said, fighting back tears, "That is their heart's desire. These folks are there to help. That's what they want to do.”
Wilcoxson and Ajasin agree that CPS needs to undergo changes and legislation is a place to start, but any improvement that may come from lawmakers will not be immediate.
Some changes, however, are already underway.
At the urging of Hank Whitman, the new Commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, the state approved the hiring of more than 800 new employees and $12,000 annual pay raises for CPS investigators and case workers.
CPS employee turnover rates have also dropped from 47.5 percent in 2007 to just over 19 percent by the second quarter of this year.
Wilcoxson says she has her ear to the ground and is hearing that CPS workers like the changes they’re seeing so far.
“I know the hearts of these workers. And they want to do their jobs,” said Wilcoxson.
Ajasin believes we as a community can do our part.
“My reaction to people blaming the system is usually, 'well, what are you doing? Did you see something in your neighborhood that should have been reported? Did you just turn a blind eye because you didn’t want to get involved,” Ajasin asked. “Somebody else out there had to see something and CPS can't be there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But we as a community are there.”