Do you remember those old police shows on television? Someone calls the station. The dispatcher hurriedly takes the report, then breathlessly shouts into the radio, “Calling all cars!” The hero rolls to the rescue. Sadly, in today’s Texas, when it comes to abused children, Child Protective Services too often has no car to roll.
News reports have chronicled how CPS investigators are failing to see children on time and sometimes failing to see them at all. In September, CPS had a backlog of more than 4,700 reportedly abused children whom an investigator should have already seen face-to-face but had not. For those children investigators did see, in almost a third of the cases, they did not do so in the time the law requires.
This tragic state of affairs is apparently the new normal. The state can do better.
Under state law, CPS must respond immediately to a report of abuse when necessary to project a child from death or substantial bodily injury. In other serious cases, CPS has 24 hours to respond; and, in less urgent cases, often those involving neglect, CPS has 72 hours to respond.
CPS investigators are failing to meet these deadlines simply because they have too many cases. I recently talked to a very good investigator — trained, experienced- and caring — who is struggling with about 40 cases. A manageable load would be 20 cases. National standards call for 12 cases.
Why do investigators have too many cases? Because the state does not pay investigators enough for CPS to hire and retain the investigators it needs. Teachers make more on a nine-month contract than CPS investigators do on a 12-month contract. Police officers make even more.
Because of high caseloads and low salaries, CPS can’t keep the investigators it does hire. Last year, about a third quit. When one quits, caseloads go up for those remaining, and more quit, leaving CPS woefully understaffed — unable to roll when the dispatcher calls.
When an investigator can respond and determines that she must remove children from a bad situation, too often, she has no place to put them.
Simply put, we have a foster care crisis. In December, a federal court found our system unconstitutionally unsafe in part because of an inadequate number of foster homes. Since then, things have gotten worse. Children now regularly stay one or more nights in state office buildings or cheap hotels. Some are stuck in psychiatric hospitals because no other placement is available.
We have too few foster homes because the state does not pay enough to foster care agencies to do what the state requires. Today’s foster care agencies must be professional treatment organizations capable of meeting the needs of traumatized children. Recruiting, vetting, training, deploying, supervising and supporting foster parents is time consuming and expensive. State foster care rates do not cover the cost.
We cannot and should not address our foster home shortage merely by calling on charitable persons and the faith community. They have an important role to play, but the public responsibility of protecting children is too big and too costly to push off on them.
Nor should the state address the problem by removing fewer children. Texas already has one of the lowest removal rates in the nation. If we removed at the national average, our state would remove thousands more children, not fewer.
Nor is it simply a matter of increasing our reliance on kinship care. Kin already provided much of our temporary care, and, when a child can’t go home, most of our permanent placements. In fact, we may be relying too heavily on kinship care that place children in some marginal homes.
Although prevention programs and increasing their funding are ultimately the answer to addressing child abuse, prevention can’t address the current problem. Once a house is a blaze, adding a smoke detector is of no help.
We must take the fundamental steps of increasing worker salaries and paying for foster care. These basic steps will cost us hundreds of millions of dollars, but unless we take these steps, nothing else we do will matter much.
In January, the Legislature meets. The Legislature would be wise to pay adequate salaries to caseworkers and adequate rates for foster care. Texans must make their voices heard and demand it. In other words: Calling all cars to the Texas Capitol.
F. Scott McCown is clinical professor of law and director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Sherman-Denison Herald Democrat and Psychology Today.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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