Public service workers can make a difference in people’s lives. For example, last year workers in the Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) division of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) investigated more than 175,000 charges of child abuse involving 297,000 children and removed 17,000 children from abusive homes. The work of these public servants no doubt saved lives and improved the lives of others.
There are, however, many more who need these services but aren’t getting them. Texas’ child population is nearly 7 million and growing. But DFPS funding has not kept up with population growth.
Unfortunately, anti-public service lobby groups have said that they will try to cut the state’s budget again in 2013. If DFPS falls victim to these proposed cuts, as is likely, the situation will likely deteriorate.
The Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 has launched a campaign to build support for an agency budget that will improve the state’s capacity to protect abused children.
Members of TSEU who work at DFPS in February met with DFPS leadership to provide input about what the agency’s proposed budget for the next two fiscal years should look like and, a month later, testified before a state Senate committee about problems affecting the agency’s ability to serve a growing child population.
When TSEU members met with DFPS Commission Howard Baldwin and Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Sims, the workers urged the commissioners to seek funding that would restore client services cut last year, establish a career ladder designed to reduce employee turnover, set manageable caseload standards, and reject foster care privatization expansion.
One of the client services that TSEU members urged the commissioners to restore is the Kinship Program, which may be axed in September because the Legislature eliminated funding for it. The program allows abuse victims to live with relatives or close friends instead of going into foster care.
Myko Gedutis, TSEU lead organizer for Southeast Texas, said that TSEU would continue to monitor and provide input toward the drafting of the agency’s budget. The biggest obstacles to a fair DFPS budget are pressure from anti-public service lobbyists to cut spending beyond the $15 billion cut last year and a $5 billion a year structural deficit caused by the state’s antiquated revenue system.
More recently, TSEU members testified at a Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing on Child Protective Services. Stephanie Diaz, a CPS investigation supervisor in Aransas Pass, near Corpus Christi, and a TSEU member, said that the biggest problem facing CPS and its clients is the ”dangerously high caseloads (that) contribute to high turnover and poor casework. These issues compound each other constantly, so it feels like we are not making progress and those of us on the frontlines are being run into the ground.”
Diaz said that the average caseload for a Child Protective Services investigator in her region is 30. The national standard is 14. The high caseload and the demand to move cases through the system often lead to cases not receiving the full attention they deserve.
“We, as social workers, and you, as Legislators and human beings, should put yourselves in the shoes of those families DFPS serves,” Diaz said. “Would you want your caseworker to give you more than five minutes of their time before making life changing decisions for you and your family?”
The employee turnover rate at CPS is 25 percent; the state agency average is about 15 percent. More than 53 percent of staff have less than three years experience. The high turnover rate has had its biggest impact in the Austin area, where according to the American Statesman, only 45 of the 95 authorized CPS investigator positions are filled causing a backlog of 1,000 cases.
Susan Rial, an investigation supervisor in Arlington, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, told senators that reducing the turnover rate and retaining qualified experienced caseworkers will require job improvements such as establishing a career ladder that provide an incentive for workers, whose starting annual salary is between $32,200 and $36,700, to stay on the job.
Rial also urged lawmakers to reject proposals to reduce employee health care benefits and eliminate their pensions. “When weighing the pros versus the cons (on whether to stay), all to often the cons win out for new staff,” Rial said. ”Two major reasons staff do decide to stay are because of our health care and pension benefits. Undermining these benefits by converting to 401(k)s or health savings accounts will undoubtedly create an exodus from our agency. This is a legislative change to stay away from.”