High employee turnover, lack of adequate funding put Texas foster care children at risk

A task force in a Texas county where two children died while in foster care last summer has found that the main problem with Texas’ foster care program is that employee turnover is too high at the state agency that investigates child abuse and monitors the safety of children in foster care.

“Our number one problem is the turnover of (Child Protective Services) workers,” said Williamson County Commissioner  Lisa Birkman in a meeting of the task force reported by the Austin American Statesman.

According to the Statesman article, four children have died while in foster care in Williamson County within the past few years. Williamson County, where a number of Austin suburbs are located, is just north of Austin.

The problems with foster care in Williamson County extend throughout the state, and Texas for years has struggled to improve its foster care program.

Improvement became more urgent in 2013 after ten children died in foster care or in the care of a relative providing foster care services.

The 2013 deaths led Child Protective Services (CPS), the Texas agency that oversees the foster care program, to enact more regulations intended to improve the monitoring of foster care homes and facilities.

Before the agency implemented the new regulations, the state began experimenting with a redesign of the foster care program that relies heavily on privatization.

But Myko Gedutis, assistant organizing coordinator for the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), said that it will take more than new regulations and privatization schemes to improve foster care in Texas.

“Foster care outcomes will improve when services are funded adequately,”  said Gedutis. “The state needs to pay foster parents more so that more families can afford take care of foster children; it needs to ensure that foster children receive the services they need to thrive; and it needs to improve pay and reduce caseloads in order to reduce the high turnover rate among CPS employees.”

Lawmakers thought that they could save money and provide more services by privatizing foster care management, but that hasn’t worked out very well.

They instructed the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which oversees CPS, to contract with private companies to manage foster care services. The privatization of foster care management is called Foster Care Redesign.

Last summer Providence Services Corporation, one of the state’s two Foster Care Redesign contractors, quit because, according to Providence CEO Mike Fidgen, Texas foster care is inadequately funded.

“The failure of Providence showed that systemic under funding of the foster care system is the source of foster care’s problems,” said Gedutis.

Gedutis said that he is encouraged by the fact that more people like Commissioner Birkman, a Republican, are recognizing that employee turnover is a problem that needs to be addressed.

In fact, there’s a growing consensus that reducing the turnover rate at CPS is essential to improving foster care.

An operational review of CPS conducted by the Stephen Group finds that employee “turnover is a major organizational burden.”

DFPS has told lawmakers that the agency’s high turnover rate needs to be addressed, and some lawmakers such as Larry Gonzalez, a Republican from Williamson County, have agreed.

But while a consensus about the problem is growing, there’s no consensus on a solution.

The official response seems to be that the key to reducing turnover is to reduce job stress.

With this in mind, the Texas Sunset Commission and the Stephen Group have recommended simplifying the state Family Code so that child protective workers don’t have to spend so much time documenting compliance with the Family Code.

That might be a good start, but if lawmakers and state officials are serious about reducing employee turnover at CPS, they should listen to the workers.

Former CPS workers who responded to an exit survey said that the main reasons that they left were poor working conditions, excessive workloads, supervisor issues, and inadequate compensation.

Another survey of workers still with the agency found that only 3 percent of those surveyed said that they were adequately paid, while 75 percent said that they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their current pay.

Average pay for CPS caseworkers ranges from $34,516 a year to $37,718 a year. The job requires a four-year college degree or comparable work experience.

In addition to low pay, CPS caseworkers struggle with high caseloads.

According to the CPS Annual Report, the statewide average daily caseload for a CPS investigative caseworker is 19.7 cases. The Midland region with an average of 24.4 cases per worker is the region with the highest average caseload.

The Child Welfare League of America recommends a caseload of 12-15 foster care children per caseworker.

CPS employees understand the impact that high caseloads have on their jobs.

“When caseloads are too high, you cannot provide quality service to the client,” wrote one CPS employee on the survey referred to above.

“Workers are overloaded and . . . this puts children at risk,” wrote another employee

Addressing the high turnover rate by raising pay and lowering caseloads is one step that the Legislature needs to take when it convenes next year, said Gedutis, but there are other areas of concern that need to be addressed.

“TSEU’s Family Protective Services caucus (the union members who work for DFPS) has taken the position that foster care outcomes will improve when the program receives adequate funding,” said Gedutis. “As the failure of Providence showed, systemic under funding of the foster care system has resulted in an inadequate foster care network, both public and private. Improvement can’t take place by changing who manages that inadequate network. Only by providing adequate funding can we ensure that all foster care children are living in a safe environment.”

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