This commentary appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.
Earlier this month, Riley and Jenetta Smith drowned in Lake Georgetown while their foster parents were on shore nearby. The 4-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister were the latest Texas children to die with the very foster families the state of Texas — or its private contractors — picked out to keep them safe.
In these heartbreaking cases, it’s difficult to go back and pinpoint how these fragile lives could have been saved. If the state had better programs to help at-risk families, could they have stayed safely with their original parents? If Texas had stronger standards for training and screening foster parents, would this foster family have been selected?
What we do know is that we can protect more children in the future if the Legislature invests in reducing caseloads for child abuse investigators and other Child Protective Services caseworkers.
CPS caseworkers work hard and care deeply about keeping kids safe. They serve our state’s most vulnerable and traumatized children and families, working in an often toxic work environment that dramatically impacts their personal well-being and ability to be an effective professional. I know because I spent four years as a caseworker.
But sometimes, expertise, hard work and passion only go so far. Last year, the typical foster care caseworker was responsible for 32 vulnerable kids at once. Under the best-case scenario this year, "only” 28 Texas foster kids will be competing for the attention of each overworked caseworker at any given time. National best practices, on the other hand, require no more than 17 children per staffer.
When caseworkers have to rush from child to child, and case file to case file, they are unable to see each child and family as often as they should and want. When they do see them, CPS caseworkers can’t spend quality time with a child or family before they rush away to check on the next case.
They don’t get to spend time with the family to talk to them about summer safety or notice red flags that indicate the potential for physical, emotional or sexual abuse in the foster home. They don’t get to know the child and ensure that she has the emotional support, the academic opportunities and the basic safety she needs to thrive.
Children in foster care have already been through the trauma of abuse or neglect and the removal from their homes. Brain research tells us the instability and toxic stress have a lasting biological impact on children’s development, especially if they don’t quickly receive consistent help. The statistics tell us they are at risk of abusing others, becoming human trafficking victims, getting pregnant before they’re ready, or ending up homeless. The foster care alumni I meet also show me they are strong, resilient and capable of contributing so much to our state.
If foster children have a CPS caseworker with the time to steer them in the right direction, and steer them away from danger, they are more likely to make it.
Fortunately, strengthening CPS is emerging as a new priority for the Legislature. The fifth CPS hearing of the year will take place on July 24th.
As Texans mourn the death of Riley and Jenetta, we shouldn’t simply lament that children drown every summer. The state of Texas — which assumed the role of these children’s parents when it removed them from their home — must look deeper, and take action to ensure CPS caseworkers have the time and support to do what they have dedicated their lives to — keeping kids safe.
Ashley Harris is a child welfare policy associate at Texans Care for Children.