Texas governor calls child welfare backlog 'unacceptable'
Posted October 12
AUSTIN, Texas — Worsening reports coming from Texas' beleaguered child welfare agency provoked new calls for action from Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday, only seven months after he appointed new leadership and vowed an overhaul to protect the state's most vulnerable kids.
Texas has seen no progress since that shakeup in reducing the scores of allegedly abused or neglected kids who welfare investigators are failing to visit in a timely fashion — meaning the state is effectively breaking its own rules. On any given day around Houston or Dallas, no checks are made on more than 200 kids considered high priority by the state.
Around 50 kids pulled from homes considered dangerous also slept in state offices, motels or emergency shelters in August and September, a roughly five-fold increase since February, according to state figures.
Abbott called the failure of timely visits "completely unacceptable" in a letter to Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman, who the governor appointed in April. Whitman is a retired Texas Ranger who spent his entire career in law enforcement and had no prior child welfare experience.
Although Abbott signaled support for Whitman's agenda, he also directed him to come up with a swift plan to hire and train more investigators and caseworkers.
"A lack of timely contact only exacerbates backlogs throughout the entire system and potentially leaves a child in a dangerous situation," Abbott wrote.
The letter, which was also signed by the lieutenant governor and House speaker, did not promise any immediate additional money to increase the salaries of low-paid caseworkers. Many child welfare advocates say raises are crucial to stop an exodus of caseworkers whose starting salary is below $40,000. The turnover rate last year was about 33 percent.
Texans Care for Children, an Austin-based advocacy group, responded to the letter by calling for immediate plans to improve caseworker pay and mental health services for foster kids.
In a statement, Whitman said he appreciated the support from state leaders but offered no hints at how he might address their concerns.
"Protecting children is our highest priority. We have to do better," Whitman said.
The uptick in the number of children sleeping in state offices is tied to the state losing almost 400 residential treatment center beds this year, DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. He added that the foster care system lacks the capacity for "high-needs foster youth" and said removals of children into foster care is up 10 percent from last year.
A federal judge last year ruled that Texas' foster care system was unconstitutionally broken and appointed an outsider to oversee reforms.
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