New report points to a path forward for Texas foster care

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

In December, a federal judge’s scathing ruling laid out the legal and moral case that Texas leaders must vastly improve the state’s foster care system to ensure children’s lives get better — not worse — when Child Protective Services removes them from unsafe homes.

The ruling, which the state has appealed, comes as state leaders increasingly agree that foster care needs attention. Legislators have passed meaningful bills in recent sessions, and both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus have called on legislative committees to recommend steps to improve foster care prior.

And now a report from the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services, the parent agency to CPS, confirms one of the main steps that legislators must take to make foster care a safe, healing, and stable place for children. Specifically, the new report shows that CPS staff caseloads — largely a product of the Legislature’s budget decisions — continue to put children in danger. The Annual Report and Data Book says that in 2015 every foster care caseworker was responsible for the safety of 28 children each day, on average.

What does that mean for a child in foster care? First, she lived in a home where abuse or lack of supervision threatened her safety. Then she went through the trauma of being removed from her home, her neighborhood and her school. Now, due to high CPS caseloads, she has to compete with 27 other children for the attention of one caseworker tasked with finding her a safe and supportive home, ensuring the she receives proper care and treatment and spotting red flags in dangerous foster homes. As the federal judge said in her ruling, CPS "caseworkers are overburdened to the point where they cannot perform their required duties, namely protecting their foster children from an unreasonable risk of harm.”

The good news is that the state has taken small steps in the right direction, reducing foster care caseloads from 31 in 2014 to the current 28. The bad news is that the Texas average of 28 children per foster care caseworker far exceeds the maximum of 17 recommended by the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) national best practices. In fact, that comparison understates how high our caseloads are: The Texas numbers are based on daily averages while CWLA uses a maximum monthly figure. The federal judge also asserted that the state understates the size of caseloads.

Caseloads for caseworkers in foster care — also known as conservatorship or "substitute care services” — are even worse in certain regions of the state. For example, caseworkers in the Midland region juggle an average of 34 children per day. In the Tyler area, the average exceeds 32, while the Abilene and Austin regions are close to 31. The El Paso and Houston areas, on the other hand, are doing the best with averages of 20 and 25, respectively.

The new report also reveals unsafe caseloads for CPS staffers who conduct the investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect. In 2015, these caseworkers were tasked with an average of 16.5 investigations per day. We applaud the modest progress the state has made, reducing the average from 19.5 in 2014, but investigating 16.5 allegations per day far exceeds the CWLA national recommendation of 12 active cases per month. Houston has the highest average, while the El Paso region again looks the best.

The DFPS staff, including retiring Commissioner John Specia, is dedicated to supporting these children. But they can’t do it on their own. As they work to improve the well-being of foster children, keep more families safely intact in the first place, and recruit loving foster families, they need the governor and Texas Legislature to ensure the backbone of the child protective services system — the CPS caseworker workforce — is at full strength. State leaders need to determine how many kids each caseworker can safely support, and the Legislature needs to provide the funding to reach that target.

Stephanie Rubin is the CEO of Texans Care for Children.