Lawmakers must reduce CPS caseloads to protect kids

Photo by Eric Gay

It’s 5:30 p.m. You’ve been up since 4 a.m. You’re finally getting ready to walk out of the office and you get the dreaded call: “Can you pick me up? The door is locked and they won’t let me in and all my stuff is outside.”

As a Child Protective Services caseworker, this is your typical day, and your typical child. Well, she’s technically the state’s child, one of the 32 foster children who are your responsibility. It’s your job to ensure her safety, security and well-being while also managing everyone else involved in that child’s life: volunteer advocates, attorneys, relatives, caregivers, therapists and more.

Instead of heading home to eat dinner with your family and clear your head before it all starts over again, you’re on your way to pick up that foster child waiting on the curb. What else could you do? You love these kids, all 32 of them.

You turn on the car radio and your mind churns: Where will she sleep tonight? How can I find her a loving long-term home? How can I help her recover from the layers of trauma — neglect at home, removal from her parents, new schools and those foster parents who scared her rather than helping her heal? How much time will I have left this week to get to the other 31 kids on my caseload, each as vulnerable as this one?

Your work never stops, 24/7. Missed holidays and birthdays with your family, missed happy hours with your friends. Those sacrifices can be tough, but you can take it. What you can’t take is knowing that you don’t have the time and support to protect all the fragile kids assigned to you.

I know this story all too well. As a CPS caseworker for four and a half years, I managed demands, tasks and unreasonable expectations that greatly impacted my personal life and professional effectiveness. Now, as a policy advocate, I am saddened to see the same workforce concerns that were present years ago continue to plague CPS caseworkers today. I’m disturbed that Texas children continue to suffer the consequences of our state not having done enough for our CPS workforce.

Today marks the sixth legislative hearing this year on child protection issues. We’re glad to see that strengthening CPS is a priority for legislators heading into the next session, but the reasons for the spotlight are concerning: more children dying with the families the state selected to keep them safe; stories of children abused and neglected in foster homes; unmanageable caseloads for CPS caseworkers; an ongoing lawsuit; a Sunset Commission report that found a difficult work environment at CPS; and a study that concluded CPS workers only have 26 percent of their time to spend meeting with children and families.

There have been reports and hearings full of recommendations for improving CPS, but one in particular will address multiple challenges at once: reducing caseloads for child abuse investigators and other CPS caseworkers. Many caseworkers are currently responsible for nearly twice as many children as national best practices recommend.

If the Legislature reduces their caseloads, they will have the time to get to know each child and family — instead of spending wasted hours on the road between visits and filling out paperwork for each case. They will notice warning signs that a child may be in danger and build a relationship that encourages the child to confide in them. They will be less likely to burn out and force CPS to recruit and train a new, inexperienced caseworker.

CPS has a hard-working staff, from front-line caseworkers up to the agency commissioner, who are dedicated to protecting children and helping them recover from trauma. But the Legislature needs to be a better partner to the agency and, by extension, to abused and neglected kids.

Meanwhile, the agency must admit that it needs assistance, including additional funding from the Legislature. That reluctance to admit it’s underfunded is understandable given the scrutiny the agency faces when its shortcomings are revealed to the press, legislators and plaintiffs suing the state. But that’s no excuse for shortchanging vulnerable children.

Ashley Harris

Child welfare policy associate at Texans Care for Children