SAN ANTONIO – Child Protective Services is an arm of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Shortly after taking charge of DFPS, its new commissioner, Hank Whitman, saw two things that could impact one of the most persistent problems facing CPS. The agency has been plagued for years by high caseworker turnover rates.
The issues made it hard for children suffering from suspected abuse or neglect to be seen as quickly or as often as required. Caseworkers are supposed to see Priority I cases within 24 hours and Priority II within 72 hours.
Whitman got state lawmakers to approve letting CPS hire more than 800 additional caseworkers and give $12,000 a year pay raises to many caseworkers already on the job. Whitman told The Defenders higher pay and additional caseworkers are having an effect on how hastily children are seen, "Our caseworkers are getting to the families quicker."
It’s also reducing turnover rates, according to Whitman. “We're down by 25 percent from what we were five or six months ago."
Since the first of the year, CPS has tracked how many children are seen on time and reported that information to the Legislature. It also tracks and reports the reasons why its caseworkers leave the agency.
The following graph shows the percentage of Priority I intakes assigned for investigation and initiated in 24 hours per protocol.
CPS works hand in glove with the courts to oversee children in its system. Judge Peter Sakai runs Bexar County Children’s Court. He finds when CPS brings parents to court for alleged abuse or neglect the parents often don’t feel they should be there, or that CPS should not be investigating their family.
Sakai said, "Most people come in here thinking that they haven't done anything wrong. That's why they're so angry, but I have to hold them accountable. I have to point out to them that there's consequences for the bad choices that they make especially when their choices hurt children.”
In years past, the consequences often involved children being permanently removed from their homes and parents.
Sakai said Bexar County is now taking a different approach. “Two, three years ago we had the highest rate of removals in the state of Texas. We had the highest rate of re-victimization. Those are children that have been involved in CPS, went home and got re-victimized so we have made changes in the last two or three years"
One of those changes is Early Intervention. "We're focusing on children, babies zero to three and putting these parents in an intensive program to protect our most vulnerable in our community."
The Early Intervention Program focuses on very young children who are taken into foster care by CPS because of abuse or neglect. The program’s mission is to provide the children’s parents with the help they need to turn their lives around so they can be reunified with their children.
The graph below shows Priority I cases in Region 8 which includes Bexar County.
The program is spear-headed by Sakai who saw a need for intervention. However, to make it happen required pulling together both public and private funding to heal families that might otherwise be forever broken.
Early Intervention is more commonly called “Baby Court” around the Bexar County Courthouse.
It graduated its first group of parents in April. Cynthia West said she wasn’t sure about the program when she was first offered a chance to participate. "Like when I first started I didn't have no self-esteem, no confidence. I was hurting. I was mad but I got through it."
West and her fiance are among a dozen proud parents who wore caps and gowns as they paraded into the big courtroom at the Bexar County Courthouse for graduation. She beamed as their names were called. Some parents, like West and her fiance, had to overcome drug use. "Before we got into this program we were addicts." Now they are both are clean.
Other participants had to get out of situations involving domestic violence. Additionally, all the participants had to learn how to become nurturing parents so they could get their kids back.
The success of the program’s first class is drawing lots of attention here in Texas and beyond according to Sakai. “Our programs are what the state if not the nation are looking at. People are wanting to know how we created our early intervention program when we know that government funding is shrinking at the federal, state and local level. What we have is public-private partnerships."
It’s a formula that CPS is looking to use as well. Partnering with private groups, charities and civic organizations for placements and other needs of the children means the community has a stake helping the children thrive.
Commissioner Whitman told The Defenders, "Our communities are going to come together and help DFPS because it cannot be done by government alone. It won't work."