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To understand the problems that faced the agency, legislators asked how the system works.
First, a complaint is filed to the agency, which is routed through the state office in Austin. If someone decides the call warrants further attention, the case is given to a CPS investigator.
The investigator must complete the case within 30 days. If the investigator closes the case, he can still refer the child to other programs funded by Harris County Children's Protective Services such as "Pal," which gets foster children ready for independent adult life.
The investigator can also determine the state needs to take custody. That's what happened to Maria Martinez, and even though her children were placed with Rafael's mother and stepfather, the state technically has custody. Finding a relative for the child is the preferred option, but if there's no relative, the child goes to a foster family or a foster facility. Wherever the child goes after the investigation is complete, the state assigns a CPS caseworker until the child is back with his or her family, is adopted or turns 18 and graduates from high school.
After lawmakers looked at the structure of the system, they decided to increase the pay of investigators and to hire more of them. The goal was to lower investigators' caseloads. The agency also planned to gradually privatize the duties of the caseworkers and the foster system itself by doing away with state-run facilities.
In September, the Department of Family and Protective Services, under which Child Protective Services operates, issued its fourth report on the progress of the 2005 reform, and state officials painted a pretty picture of "tremendous improvement."
Agency officials cited a reduction of 1,000 children in foster care between March and September. This reduction is attributed to lower investigator caseloads resulting in an improved investigative force. According to the top officials at the agency, the reform is passing through CPS like a cool breeze.
But former and current CPS investigators and caseworkers, along with state advocacy groups, say the 2005 plan may have made problems worse. Employee turnover has actually risen since 2005. About 34 percent of CPS investigators and caseworkers quit during their first year, and that number is about 10 percent higher in Harris County. Children in Texas still die at a rate that almost doubles the national average. Harris County is tops, with almost four deaths per 100,000 children. The number of Harris County children in foster care has dropped by about 100 since last year, but has actually risen by almost 1,000 since 2005.
Smith says her group advised lawmakers in 2005. The idea that was championed by the legislature — lowering caseloads for investigators — should have been done years earlier, Smith says. But privatizing parts of the system was an idea that child advocacy groups strongly opposed.
"There really is a wide range in the quality of the [private] care," Smith says. "With children in the state's care, we think the state should have the authority to make decisions on the children's behalf."
The privatization idea has gone horribly awry. A pilot program started in the San Antonio area was unable to secure bids from foster care providers. This year, the legislature voted to kill the plan.
Furthermore, the 2005 measures created a backlash among CPS caseworkers. After the agency beefed up the investigator position — better pay, more positions, lower caseloads — many employees simply left the caseworker side to become investigators. This created a larger strain on the caseworkers that stayed. They were paid less and doing more work. And until this year, the agency had plans to cut caseworkers for the looming privatization.
Then, in March, the state entered a foster placement emergency. The state had failed to renew contracts with foster care agencies, and several group homes shut down. CPS officials alerted caseworkers in Houston that they would have to start working weekend shifts at the agency's Chimney Rock office to care for foster children who had no place to go.
That was the breaking point for many of the overworked employees, according to former caseworker Lee Welborn, who left the agency in July.
"We felt like we shouldn't give up our weekends because they couldn't get a contract signed," Welborn says. "Some people who I never thought would leave are leaving."
Before working as a caseworker, Welborn was a middle school teacher, where, among other things, he taught journal writing. Welborn read some dark, sordid writing from his students, things he considered abuse. He wanted to protect these kids, not just teach them. He left for CPS.
"I went there hoping I could stay. I did love it," Welborn says. "There are times I feel guilty for leaving, but when you have 72 cases, you feel like you can't really help a kid."
Ursula Christian had worked as a CPS caseworker for a year and a half when she heard the weekend order. Already, Christian says, she was handling 75 to 80 cases. Christian was told she'd have to add three weekend shifts a month. Sometimes that meant working an overnight shift at Chimney Rock, then returning to her regular office at 8 a.m. It became too much.
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