The Stephens Group Report that came out in June cost taxpayers $750,000 to produce, pointed out child welfare advocates. But it’s hoped the findings and recommendations – largely based on employee interviews and surveys find their way to CPS leaders who have vision enough to put them into action. That vision appears to already be taking shape.

The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) which oversees CPS has listed priorities for what is being called an agency-wide ‘Transformation’:
• Reduce turnover and improve employee retention.
• Improve the safety, permanency, and well-being of children
• Make CPS an efficient and effective organization.CPS

The Stephens Report recommends fostering a better working environment between caseworkers and their supervisors. A reward system for mentoring younger workers will be emphasized too.

In late 2013, the Stephens Report found 43% of CPS investigation caseworkers – those who look into abuse complaints – left the job some within 24 months of being hired. That’s four times the turnover rate of CPS staff (9.8%) that didn’t interact directly with affected children and six times that of other state employees (6%). In CPS Region 7 which takes in Austin along with Travis, Williamson and Hays Counties among others, the turnover rate among casework investigators late last fiscal year was 58%, the Report showed.

Here is how the Stephens Report authors summarized the retention crisis:

‘While there is considerable talent within CPS, the time and demands on the workforce is increasing significantly… workload demands on staff are not driven simply by the number of children and families assigned to each worker… Higher work demands include increased Family Code compliance requirements, constantly changing agency policies, additional and changing forms, system and IT adjustments, and information sharing and handoff issues… The net result of these increasing workload demands is that workers spend less time talking to families and children and more time handling administrative tasks… caseworkers only spend 26% of their time interacting directly with families.
– The Stephen Group Report into Texas CPS – June 2014

Is the solution more state funding? In the last legislative session in 2013, lawmakers restored about 300 CPS jobs many of which were cut in 2011.

“Given that it was just restoring past cuts (though), CPS has been unable to fill those positions and address the needs that are currently in place,” said Ashley Harris, a Child Welfare Policy Associate with Texans Care for Children, an Austin-based non-profit group pushing for better child protection laws.

Harris told KXAN concept of the newly-restored but still-vacant positions essentially puts the agency farther behind in its goals toward reducing caseload volumes. She and her organization are lobbying for increased funding in the upcoming legislative session, provided new or amended laws provided for a smarter use of public money in hiring and training caseworkers and reducing caseloads.

TCfC_logo-rgb-medium Harris, herself a former CPS caseworker in Travis County pointed out the recommended standard for CPS investigators is to have no more than 12 open cases at a time and to not get new cases until one is closed. CPS officials admitted to KXAN this week, the now-fired caseworker in Colton Turner’s case had a caseload of 37.

CPS also this week revealed a current caseload backlog in Travis County alone numbering more than 450. That equates to 450 children at risk of abuse and neglect who have not had a visit by a caseworker 60 days or longer after the agency first received a complaint.

The backlog sparked the deployment of four so-called Master Investigators in August, a number that was tripled in the wake of publicity surrounding Colton’s death in September. Master Investigators are roving, full-time caseworkers who are paid from a separate Department of Health and Human Services fund. The team was created in 2013 after previous backlog crises including another in Travis County. In 2012, CPS officials confirm the local backlog at nearly 2,000 cases. By April of that year, the CPS ‘swat team’ had reduced the backlog by two thirds, CPS staff said.

Typically if a public service agency can’t keep its employees, it’s harder to attract new staff that may have an eye to how the overall operation is being run. In March, a survey of why CPS workers were leaving found:

• 70% blamed workload • 57% credited a stressful work environment
• 47% said pay was the main reason
• 22% said they left the agency due to lack of support from their boss

However, in its recommendations the Stephens Report paints a rosier picture:

‘CPS will change the dialogue between the supervisor and the caseworker by much better tracking of the details around the tasks the agency asks each person to do. With the support of supervisor training and metrics focused on the quality (not just quantity) of work, the environment will become much more desirable and allow more caseworkers to be proud of working for CPS.’ – The Stephen Group Report into Texas CPS – June 2014

Transformation

DFPS also received recommendations from the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission – a group of lawmakers and appointed members of the public who periodically review state agencies to hold their managers accountable for their spending of public funds. By happenstance, DFPS’ turn came up this past session. And those recommendations are also included in DFPS’ Transformation project.

‘We are already reaching out to caseworkers who have been on the job for less than 18 months. We know these are the workers most likely to become discouraged and leave CPS. But they may be more likely to stay with CPS if we can talk to them individually, troubleshoot and solve any problems they may be having, and remind them of their value to vulnerable children, their families, and the State of Texas.’ Other improvements – such as IMPACT (case management system) modernization and recommending changes to state law – may take more time, but we will relentlessly pursue them.’ -DFPS Transformation webpage

Later in October, CPS is expected to publicize a progress report into the implementation of the Transformation priorities.