CPS is a grease fire, yet Texas pols splash it with money

By Jon Cassidy

From 2008 to 2015, confirmed cases of physical child abuse in Texas fell by 27 percent.

You wouldn’t know it from the newspapers, which have all been running headlines about a crisis in Child Protective Services.

“Texas CPS workers miss key deadline in 14,000 child abuse cases”

“Texas Investigators Failed to Check on Thousands of At-Risk Children”

“Staggering number of Texas children in imminent danger neglected by CPS, investigation shows”

Reading those headlines, you might think Texas has an urgent need to hire hundreds or thousands of investigators to get out and check on children in peril.

Now, there’s a crisis, all right, one that’s prompted a federal judge to take control of the state’s foster care system, and has put the issue at the top of the agenda for the coming legislative session.

But the problem has nothing to do with CPS failing to get case workers out in the field fast enough to seize children. The problem is that CPS takes so many children, it’s run out of places to put them.

Here’s the boring bureaucratic reality that those news stories are actually describing:

CPS takes all of the tips it gets that are worth checking out, and puts them into one of three piles — check within 24 hours, check within 72 hours, or offer some help.

They only bring help in two percent of the cases, although there are plans to improve on that.

For the first two categories, the investigators don’t always get out there right away. So the supposed urgency is a matter of policy (of law, actually, but we’ll come back to that).

If somebody had decided the deadlines should be two days and five days, the stories would go poof. The accurate headline would be, “CPS swamped by hundreds of thousands of false reports.”

Mandatory reporting laws are one reason that CPS is inundated with bad information.  Specifically, school employees, medical staff and law enforcement — all of whom are obligated to cover their backsides by passing along even the vaguest suspicion — produce the majority of calls to CPS.

While reports from other groups have held steady, “tips” from these mandatory reporters are up 17 percent in just two years.

The source of the faux urgency in the news is found in the first rule of bureaucracy: every problem at a bureaucracy demonstrates that the bureaucracy needs more workers and more funding.

But we’ve been here before, and tried that, and the result has been a problem spread wider than ever.

CPS is a grease fire, yet the Legislature is about to splash a new stream of funding all over it. With more money to hire more investigators, CPS will break up more families, whose children will flood an already overburdened system.

That’s what happened last time, yet Texas officials continue to follow the advice of former judge Scott McCown, who advocates “take the child and run” policies, even as most of the country has gone in the opposite direction.

CPS already focuses on the most dire cases. It already seizes children at rates far above the national average, despite what McCown says.

“Texas removes children only in the direst circumstances, giving us a lower removal rate than 43 other states,” McCown told a state House committee last month. “Many professionals on the ground will tell you that we remove too few children, leaving them in danger.”

“The claim is flat-out false in every respect,” says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Texas keeps nearly two-thirds of its seizures off-the-books, a fact Watchdog exposed in April.

Officially, Texas took 17,357 children away from their parents in 2014 — that’s the figure reported to the federal government. But according to a report commissioned by the Texas Supreme Court’s Children’s Commission, there were another 34,000 placements with family members known as parental child safety placements (PCSPs).

Wexler, like most experts, says family placements are far better than traditional foster care; that’s not the problem. It’s that other states include family placements in their counts, as they’re supposed to, meaning that the real removal rate is roughly triple McCown’s official statistics.

These children are often put into worse situations after the state takes custody.

Casey Jo Caswell of Lansing, Mich., was homeless and jobless. The state convinced her to surrender her boy Ricky to foster care, just temporarily, and then rushed to cut off her parental rights.

Here’s what happened to Ricky at the hands of his adoptive parents.

True, that happened in Michigan, but Texas is worse.

Breitbart catalogued some foster care horrors across the state, and also publicized a video of a 13-year-old’s story, which a judge tried unsuccessfully to scrub from the internet.

While the rest of the country has been finding ways to leave more children with their parents, Texas is increasing the number of families it destroys.

Just like a Vietnamese village, these families get destroyed in order to save them.

CPS took away this Houston mother’s children for nearly a year over an accidental poke in the eye.

This family of seven was broken up because dad was panhandling.

This Austin mother dared to let her kids play outside unsupervised.

This poor family was targeted for destruction because mom and dad made a home in a storage unit rather than live on the streets.

“The most frequent cause of CPS involvement is not abuse but parental unemployment, housing instability, and substance abuse,” writes Brandon Logan of the new Center for Families and Children at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

In fact, 69 percent of “confirmed” child abuse cases in 2015 were for neglect, the catch-all category that often just means “poverty.”

While the real problem may be poverty, once CPS gets involved, the family itself becomes the problem, with the solution its destruction.

Molly McGrath Tierney, director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, says that the answer is “an ounce of prevention.”

“We could find the earliest moment to intervene with a family long before they need a catastrophic intervention like putting their kid in foster care,” Tierney said during an 11-minute TED Talk that contains all anyone needs to know about foster care.

There are signs of this changing. The Department of Family and Prevention Services recently announced a five-year plan to expand early intervention, a program that’s been moved outside of CPS.  However, its $176 million two-year budget pales next to the $2.8 billion CPS program.

Wexler agrees that paying for the support services needed to keep families together is far more effective than dumping children into urine-soaked trailers.

But he also emphasizes that the problem is not a shortage of investigators, or a shortage of good homes. It’s that those investigators are taking too many children, particularly children who haven’t been physically or sexually abused.

Texas is taking more children than it has places to put them. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called on churchgoers to provide more homes for foster children.

McCown warned the Legislature last month that if a federal bill that has cleared the House becomes law, “the federal government will prohibit states from using federal dollars for… the foster group homes on which Texas so heavily relies. We have four short years to recruit, train, and deploy many more foster homes.”

But Texas doesn’t have a shortage of warm homes, Christian or otherwise.

Texas has a surplus of forcibly orphaned children, and it has four years to change its ways.

Texas has a system where “it is easier to place kids in a foster home that has already been approved, rather than making sure the (extended family) placement meets all the requirements,” according to state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who spent much of 2016 investigating the issue.

Even if the caseworker goes to the trouble of placing the child with extended family, that family receives little of the financial aid that a foster family would — just $1,000 up front and another $500 after a year, Stickland found.

The Texas Tribune talked to some of these grandparents trying to keep their grandkids out of institutions:

“After years of taking care of her grandchildren, now ranging in age from 9 to 12, being denied food stamps and standing in as many as five food pantry lines every day, a state worker told (Houston grandmother Sammye) Hughes last year that she and her grandchildren qualified for TANF. The 67-year-old started using the $197-per-month to supplement her retirement and social security incomes. But in September when it was time to renew her eligibility, she said she was shocked to learn that the 2011 car she was making payments on made her ineligible for the program.

“‘If they were foster children, they would pay me to have them,’ Hughes said. ‘If CPS had taken them out and placed them in my house as foster care, I would get money for them staying here. But because I’m their grandmother that their mother dumped them on, I get nothing.’”

“Critics will say you shouldn’t pay a family to take care of their own,” says Stickland, pointing to the potential for abuse, but he says it makes little sense “paying more for a stranger to take a child than the child’s own family.”

CPS is asking for another 550 investigators and case workers. Naturally, they would be deployed at the front end, rather than checking on the welfare of children already in foster care.

The irony is that while all these prominent voices agree that 24 or 48 hours is too long to wait for an investigator to check on an initial tip, hardly any of them are concerned that a child in an abusive group home can go months without seeing a caseworker.

This is despite the fact that it is foster care dysfunction that’s led to a federal court takeover of the system, not an emergency with response times. And these problems aren’t new.

Former Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn warned more than a decade ago that “the heartbreaking truth is that some of these children are no better off in the care of the state than they were in the hands of abusive and negligent parents.”

Studies support her — foster care can be worse for children than a bad home, even an abusive home.

The bureaucracy at CPS is doing what it’s always done: asking for money and willing itself to be a better bureaucracy.

“What we have been doing in Texas for too long is putting ‘the system’ ahead of better homes for foster children,” Logan says.

“Simply hiring more investigators, without doing the rest, will only further widen the net of coercive intervention,” Wexler writes. “In a few years, Texas will wind up with the same lousy system only bigger.”

Only, Wexler wrote those lines in 2005.

He was taking a look back at what had happened after McCown convinced the Legislature in 1999 to increase CPS funding by $200 million, funding 437 more CPS employees.

“In 1999, removals of children from their homes jumped 27 percent over the previous year. So it’s not hard to figure out what those 437 new workers wound up doing,” Wexler wrote. The “new money left Texas with the same lousy system only bigger. Though (McCown) also called for doing more for prevention, that message was drowned out by his repeated, insistent calls for taking away more children. And now Texas’ lousy system is bigger still. Between 1998 and 2004, removals soared by 91 percent.”

“Nationwide, since 1985,” he wrote then, “the number of children removed from their parents over the course of a year has increased by about 60 percent. In Texas, during the same time period, the number of children taken from their parents more than quadrupled, from 3,241 children in 1985 to 13,431 in 2004.”

Texas has continued along the same path. The figure was up to 17,151 removals in 2015, according to CPS stats.

Meanwhile, the job of caseworker has become miserable. There’s lots of talk in the Capitol of giving caseworkers a long overdue raise to reduce turnover.  The caseloads are double the recommended levels, but they’ve been cut in half over the last decade. Yet job dissatisfaction and turnover continue to rise.

It’s worth noting that in 1985, when CPS took just 3,241 children, caseworker turnover was 16 percent, similar to the rate for teachers. Now that they’re taking five times as many kids, turnover is 33 percent.

That increase isn’t because CPS has been finding more abused children. The number of physically abused children in Texas has fallen from 14,858 cases in 2008 to 10,911 in 2015

In 2003, some 52 percent of abuse cases were actually “neglectful supervision.” By 2015, it was 69 percent.

There was a change in policy in 2003 mandated by law; coincidentally, it was the same law that created the 24-hour response requirement underlying the pseudo-emergency of this year’s headlines. That law required social workers to bring police officers with them on all high-priority investigations.

Lawyers who work in the field say that the police presence often intimidates families into surrendering their rights.

It also incentivizes the investigator to seize the child right away — or do you think they’d rather do it alone later?

Stickland proposes a sort of Miranda Rights to be read to parents when CPS shows up, but his study uncovered a fact that suggests another alternative.

From 2011 to 2015, “there were only 17 assaults against caseworkers while they were on their way to or at a home visit,” Stickland writes. “Realistically, 17 assaults in 5 years are statistically insignificant when compared to the number of home visits CPS does in a single year, much less 5 years.”

Stickland proposes investigators be allowed to carry a concealed weapon, but those numbers also suggest there’s no great threat to their safety requiring police presence. Perhaps the requirement could be replaced with simple common sense, allowing investigators to request a police escort only when needed.

Logan of TPPF, who has worked in dependency law for more than a decade, is also concerned that child welfare investigations get off on the wrong foot. Maybe there’s a way that “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” could be something other than a punchline.

“I’m hoping, at least,” he writes, “concerned citizens have someone other than CPS to call and say, ‘Can you check up on this?’ and then help can be offered instead of punishment.”

This article originally appeared at Watchdog.org.

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