Time to change our approach to managing Child Protective Services

Photo by Todd Wiseman / Karolina Michalak / Felipe Hadler

We have all seen stories recently about the systemic problems plaguing the state's Child Protective Services agency as well as articles regarding child deaths and maltreatment across Texas. These stories tend to spotlight the lack of adequate foster homes in many areas of the state, resulting in children spending nights in state offices, hospitals, or psychiatric institutions because they have no other place to go.

Most of the offered solutions center around an increase in CPS funding coupled with additional state mandates further micromanaging the behavior of CPS employees and foster care providers. However, this is the exact same cycle — high-profile problems followed by legislative response — that CPS has been through countless times over the past 30 years. We cannot keep approaching these problems in the same way and expect different results. Perhaps it's time to look for different solutions.

At CPS, legislative and judicial mandates handed down from on high have had a tendency to quash initiative and to micromanage all employees as if they are incompetent. The agency itself has compounded the problem with internal rules that add to the paperwork nightmare for caseworkers, causing them to be able to spend less than a quarter of their time actually with the kids that they are supposed to be helping.

The agency needs structural and cultural changes to provide it with flexibility to execute its mission combined with accountability measures to ensure the agency is achieving better outcomes.

There are two areas of CPS where added flexibility paired with accountability will enable it to improve outcomes for children.

First, Texas should give CPS the flexibility to attract strong talent with competitive salaries and robust training combined with strong accountability measures. The agency should be allowed to tap new sources of talent, including nontraditional workers with practical experience in complementary fields — such as first responders — trained to handle the types of stressful situations that CPS staff encounter daily.

Additionally, employees who are not doing their jobs should not be protected. They should be removed. This will lead to better outcomes for kids and a better work environment for good CPS workers. The agency should also be allowed to re-balance its personnel to ensure that the maximum possible number of workers is routinely visiting kids rather than pushing paper.

Second, Texas must improve its recruitment and retention of foster homes. One major reason we lack appropriate placements for all types of children is that we — both the Legislature and agency rules — have made it frustratingly time consuming and difficult for great candidates to become foster parents. We have regulated in response to the worst tragedies. The result is scores of rules and procedures requiring mountains of paperwork that deter good people from fostering while doing little to improve the lives or safety of the foster kids.

This needs to change. Texas should ensure that its regulations truly provide value in the process and do not erect unnecessary or unintended barriers that dissuade experienced individuals from becoming or remaining foster parents.

Those who work at CPS have an incredibly difficult job, and they only seem to receive attention when a tragedy occurs. Yet, many of the approximately 30,000 current foster children find good homes and go on to thrive. Closer to home, it is up to all of us to celebrate the success stories and to take responsibility to support these kids to ensure that all have the same chance to be reunited with their parents or find a forever home and create their own happy ending.

In the upcoming session, the Legislature will have a choice to make. Will we get further bogged down in the morass of mandates in which quality CPS workers and foster care providers have to trudge? Or will we give agency leadership the tools and the resources to build a culture where its best employees can thrive and where quality foster parents are celebrated and liberated to positively change lives?

James Frank

State representative, R-Wichita Falls