Austin American-Statesman - August 30, 2016
by Andrea Ball
Child Protective Services officials fired four high-ranking managers this week, saying the changes are part of a strategy to reform an agency under fire for failing to protect the state’s most vulnerable children from being abused or killed.
Officials at CPS said they decided not to rehire four of the 10 regional directors, all of whom were recently forced to reapply for their jobs. A fifth regional director in El Paso retired rather than reapply.
The regional directors who lost their jobs are in the Austin, Harris County, Corpus Christi and Northwest Texas areas. The Austin region of CPS, which has been losing tenured workers at an escalating rate, has been faulted in several high-profile child deaths in recent years.
Shelia Brown, the regional director for the Austin area, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS, is in the process of hiring replacements.
“We are very appreciative for the dedication and service given to CPS and the children of Texas by the regional directors from these areas,” said Patrick Crimmins, a Family and Protective Services spokesman. “A key component of Commissioner (Hank) Whitman’s plan to improve CPS is top-to-bottom accountability, and revamping CPS’ regional leadership is a critically important and very necessary step.”
The move represents a dramatic shift in strategy for the embattled agency, which for years has tried to solve its problems — high turnover, low pay and dismal morale among them — while leaving high-level managers in place.
Instead, CPS has turned to money, consultants, training and high-profile terminations of caseworkers who made mistakes or performed badly. It hadn’t done a thorough assessment of its high-ranking middle managers who direct supervisors and caseworkers.
But when Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman took the top job in May, he forced all of the regional directors to reapply for their positions, an unprecedented move aimed at leaders seen by many employees as lifers who kept their jobs no matter how their regions performed.
“The CPS regional director must be a top leader, administrator, teacher/trainer, and primary local representative with elected officials, the judiciary, and stakeholders,” Whitman wrote in a July 5 letter to Gov. Greg Abbott. “The agency’s performance will improve — and Texas children will be safer — once we ensure the right people are in these key jobs and they are held accountable for the performance within their regions.”
Whitman’s desire to bring in new regional directors was applauded by child welfare advocates.
“This is a big improvement and a shake-up in what has generally been business as usual with the management at CPS,” said Madeline McClure with TexProtects. “I’m super-encouraged that Commissioner Whitman is starting at the top and working his way down.”
One of CPS’ big problems has been internal strife.
In 2014, the Health and Human Services Commission’s Civil Rights Office conducted an internal workplace investigation into the Austin regional office. In separate interviews with the civil rights investigator, employees described one another as “dishonest,” “dysfunctional,” “disagreeable,” “unprofessional” and “unethical.”
The leadership team tried to hash out their problems at one point, Brown, the regional director, told the investigator. “She stated in August 2014 they planned to discuss The Five Dysfunctions of a Team but decided to postpone their discussion based on lack of trust in the group.”
The removal of the regional directors comes in a year that has already seen an unusual amount of top-tier turnover.
In March, several months after a federal judge ordered the state to revamp its foster care system, the former head of CPS retired. In April, after a Dallas Morning News report revealed massive CPS turnover problems in Dallas County, the regional director retired and the director of field operations resigned. The head of child care licensing also quit.
In May, former Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia walked away from the job he had held since 2012, saying it was time to retire.
Whitman, former head of the Texas Rangers, took the reins of the battered agency on May 1. In July, he told legislators at a hearing that he has a 10-point plan to clean up CPS, which includes forensic training for abuse investigators, criminal background checks on potentially abusive families before caseworker visits and finding specialized residential facilities for children with high needs.
But advocates say Whitman needs help fixing CPS.
“DFPS has taken a hard look at its leadership and made some changes to improve accountability,” said Kate Murphy, a senior policy associate at the statewide nonprofit group Texans Care for Children. “Now it’s time for the Legislature to take a hard look at the state budget and state policies and provide the resources necessary to ensure Texas kids are safe and successful.”