Better caseload standards, more workers needed to protect Texas’ children

Everyone agrees that protecting children from abuse is important work, but few appreciate how much work goes into doing the job right. Members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 on February 19 testified before a state House committee to explain all the work that must be done to keep children safe.

The TSEU members were supporting HB 304, a bill authored by Armando Walle of Houston that would establish reasonable caseloads standards for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the agency that oversees Child Protective Services (CPS).

“It is my job to work with (children who have been removed from their home), their families and relatives, their attorney’s, the court, court appointed volunteers, the caregivers, and all medical experts who make recommendations (for the children),” said Michelle Copeland, a caseworker in a Houston CPS conservatorship unit to the lawmakers. “And let’s not forget, in-house programs and service providers. As the child’s conservatorship worker, it is my duty to see the child in the home monthly, confirm that the child’s needs are being met medically, academically, emotionally, physically, and culturally, address concerns as they arise, meet documentation deadlines, monitor the progress based on the child’s plan and the family plan of service, transport to family visits, medical visits, sibling visits, or rapport-building visits. I must also visit the parent’s home, or attend service provider facilities to participate in therapeutic recommendation suggestions.”

In addition CPS workers work under strict deadlines set by the Legislature.

“The amount of time it takes to do a good investigation varies case by case, but with every case that we are assigned, we have to do what is legislatively mandated,” said John Paul Scott, a CPS investigator and Army veteran. “That means contact within 24 hours for Priority 1 cases and 72 hours for Priority 2 cases. In addition, the agency requires documentation of all work and interviews within 24 hours. If you go out on a case that involves seven children, that means seven separate interviews with the children, interviews with the parents, and contacts with collaterals.”

TSEU members told lawmakers that caseloads are too high, which means that a caseworkers and investigators can’t give their full attention to each cases. The Caseload Standard Advisory Committee recommends that the average CPS conservatorship caseworker caseload should be 20, but the current average caseload is 32.

The same holds true for other positions. The recommended caseload for investigators is 15, but the current average is 21.9; for family based safety service caseworkers, it’s 10, but the current average is 14; and for adult protective services caseworkers, it’s 22, but the current average is 30.

“The quality of our casework goes down when caseloads go up,” said Susan Rial, an investigations supervisor in Arlington. “If given an appropriate amount of time to complete an investigation, workers should be able to make good, sound observations regarding the families on their caseload. This is not possible when you have 30 or 50 or more cases. No amount of technology or better time management can make it possible for a worker to gather and process all the relevant case information for so many cases.”

Rial said that the high caseload creates a vicious cycle. It causes a high rate of burn out, which in turn creates a high level of turnover. High turnover increase the caseload for those who stay.

CPS’s turnover rate for 2012 was 24 percent; the state average was 17.3 percent. The overall turnover rate for the Department of Family Protective Services was 19.4 percent.

HB 304 aims to make caseloads more manageable, and by doing so relieve much of the stress that leads to turnover. It sets average caseload standards for investigative caseworkers, CPS case workers, CPS conservatorship caseworkers, child-care licensing caseworkers, and adult protective services in-house caseworkers.

The Legislative Budget Board estimates that setting the new caseload standards would create more than 2,500 new jobs within the Department of Family and Protective Services.

“The only way that the risk to vulnerable children, elderly and disabled Texans will be reduced is for this Legislature to approve House Bill 304,” said Scott to the lawmakers. “I ask for you to support this bill so we can make some real progress improving the work our agency does.”

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