Over the last several days the news about Child Protective Services (CPS), and the children who rely on the state agency, has been fast, furious, and at times deeply disturbing.
The media has chronicled the preventable death of a four-year-old girl in Grand Prairie; the arrest of a homeless foster youth suspected of killing a UT student; the woefully understaffed CPS office in Dallas; the announcement of a new Commissioner at DFPS (CPS’ parent agency); other leadership changes at the agency; the latest on a federal judge’s ruling against the state’s foster care system; calls for action by several legislators on both sides of the aisle; and House Speaker Joe Straus’ announcement that the issue will be "a top priority” during the next legislative session, to name just a few of the recent stories.
As Texans try to digest all of these stories and consider what should happen next, it’s important to avoid a few wrong impressions. Here are six things to keep in mind:
- Investigations into high-risk homes, including the botched investigation of the Grand Prairie family, are separate from the foster care crisis identified by the federal judge. Of course, the two issues are interconnected. The children who have been abused while in foster care were placed there to keep them safe after an investigation found that staying with their own family was too dangerous. CPS caseworkers on the investigations side and those on the foster care or "conservatorship” side also share the common challenge of dangerously high caseloads. The caseworker assigned to look into the family in Grand Prairie, for example, had a stunning 70 other cases assigned to him. Clearly the Legislature needs to boost funding for CPS to reduce caseloads.
- CPS’s job is not just keeping kids safe. Safety is certainly job one. And the tragedies that get our attention confirm Texas needs to do a better job protecting children. But children in foster care should thrive, not just survive. CPS – with the support of the Legislature – needs to make sure that children in foster care are placed in stable, loving homes and receive the therapy or other support they need in order to overcome past trauma, succeed in our schools, and go on to be successful adults.
- To borrow a line from Judge Scott McCown’s op-ed this week, "Child protection is primarily social work.” The new DFPS Commissioner, a former chief of the Texas Rangers, will certainly be able to draw on his law enforcement background, not to mention his leadership experience and his commitment to public service. But the agency’s job is focused on working with families and children, including supporting high-risk families so children can safely stay at home, and attracting loving foster families.
- Only a fraction of CPS cases involve children who have been abused. In many cases, children are removed from their homes because of the parents’ inability to keep them safe.Last year, nearly 70 percent of all "confirmed allegations” against parents were for "neglectful supervision.” Poverty and addiction are common in these homes.
- CPS is full of hard-working employees committed to protecting and supporting children. They have a very hard job to do, as the caseworker profile in this recent Texas Tribune article illustrates. When state leaders fail to provide the agency adequate support, and the staff is constantly under fire, the job is even harder. Those who make mistakes should be held accountable, but we need to strengthen CPS, not tear it down.
- The new DFPS leadership team has more than just CPS on its plate. Other major programs include Prevention and Early Intervention, which reduces cases of child abuse and other bad outcomes for kids, and Child Care Licensing. This year DFPS is undertaking its periodic review of licensing standards, which will determine maximum class sizes in child care, nutrition guidelines for child care, and nutrition and physical activity standards in foster care group homes, among other things. (Read more in our recent blog post.)
We look forward to the day when CPS is out of the headlines. In the meantime, Texans should keep these points in mind as they try to make sense of all the news and figure out how the Legislature and CPS can do a better job of protecting and supporting vulnerable children.