Since the inception of child welfare programs in America, people have raised alarms about their shortcomings. Missed signs that lead to tragic outcomes become headline news stories and rallying cries for reform. But in Texas concerns about Child Protection Services (CPS) have taken on a more urgent tone.
The deficiencies of the Texas CPS system are staggering. The Dallas News reported in May of last year that tens of thousands of endangered children were not being visited by investigators as often as regulations required. Thousands of children had not been seen by CPS at all. In Harris County, children remained unseen 13 percent of cases labeled “Priority One,” the ones most in need of urgent investigation.
The worry that Texas CPS workers are failing to fully investigate and appropriately follow up with cases due to unmanageable case volume is a valid one. Time is a limited resource, and assigning investigators more cases that they can handle in their allotted time is setting them up for failure.
In March,2016, 4-year-old Leiliana Wright was beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend. The first time a report about her had been made to CPS, 36 days lapsed before an investigator checked on her. It was determined at that time that she should stay with her mother. Later, when a nurse called to review Leiliana’s situation, CPS did not follow up. The Dallas News reported that the caseworker who was assigned to do so had 70 other cases.
This level of overwork makes failures in Texas’s CPS unavoidable. It does not, however, excuse deception. Yet an April 2016 article from the Dallas News pointed out that fraud is occurring. The research for their article shows that in 2015 over a dozen caseworkers forged data on some of their cases, reporting that they had completed home visits when they in fact had not. Two children who had open CPS files and died in 2015 had falsified visits listed in their paperwork.
Since the death of Leiliana Wright and the publication of the shocking data on CPS’s failure to investigate cases, the state government has proclaimed its determination to resolve the problems. Governor Greg Abbott has appointed new leaders to CPS in an attempt to reform management from the top down. The state legislature took the first major steps toward reform in December, granting emergency funds to the department to hire more caseworkers and increase their salaries. Just this week, on March 1, 2017, Texas House and Senate passed three CPS reform bills to fix the failing system, including by expanding government assistance to families offering to take in children who cannot remain at home.
Although increasing salaries and hiring more staff is key, it is only half of what CPS must do. More strict disciplinary action must be taken against employees who are not doing their jobs. The caseworker who failed to visit Leiliana Wright had already received several emails scolding him for not making enough visits. Obviously, repeated scolding without following up with either assistance or punishment was not enough to change his behavior.
Perhaps even more important is the need to discipline caseworkers who falsify reports. In healthcare, this would be unacceptable behavior that would likely lead to termination and lawsuits. If bodily harm occurred, as happened in several Texas CPS cases, the healthcare worker would be charged with criminal negligence. CPS administrators must thoroughly investigate the problem of falsified reporting and swiftly and firmly discipline any investigators found to have engaged in this practice.
The problems facing the Texas child welfare system are immense and will not be solved quickly. Employees at all levels of the system must work together to make it more effective. But hard work will not be enough. Both the governor and the legislature must show their commitment to correcting the problems by allocating more funds to the department. With increased funding and a commitment to change throughout the government, Texas can build a better safety net for its most vulnerable children.
Emily Rose DeMarco
Emily Rose DeMarco is a Masters of Public Administration candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. She is also a registered nurse currently working in emergency medicine.