CPS sees major staffing, backlog issues in Austin
Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN — Texas Child Protective Services has lost so many of its investigators that it's bunking 23 at a time — nine of them from the Dallas area — at an Austin-area motel to work off an extensive backlog of cases created by understaffing in Travis County.A Dallas child advocate says the agency's manpower shortage in Travis County is so acute that child abuse deaths there last year surged to 13, more than twice the annual average in the previous eight years.
"This is tragic and is exactly what workers predicted would happen with cases left open for over one year," said Madeline McClure, executive director of Dallas-based TexProtects, a research and advocacy group that seeks to improve the state's prevention of child abuse and the child-protection system more generally.
CPS officials say it's a stretch to link its staffing crisis to more deaths, but they acknowledge that investigation delays create additional risks for children.
"In seven of those cases there was no prior family involvement with CPS," spokesman Patrick Crimmins said of the Travis County deaths. Although two Travis County youths died of abuse in 2011 while CPS was investigating, he said, "even in those instances we cannot link specific outcomes to a general shortage of investigators."
Going 'all out'
The agency has redoubled efforts to hire and retain workers, and it exercises care as it brings investigators and supervisors to Austin from other regions, Crimmins said. Since Jan. 9, an all-volunteer force has cut the Austin area's backlog of cases in half, so far without increasing colleagues' workloads back home, he said.
"We are going all out," he said. "We're certainly not where we want to be."
Still, the manpower crunch again highlights persistent challenges in Texas' multiyear effort to turn around the agency. It came under fire several years ago for leaving children in fatally dangerous homes and so badly mismanaging its relations with foster care vendors that scores of abused children were forced to sleep in CPS offices.
Last fall, the staffing meltdown in CPS' investigations branch spread from Austin, a government and high-tech city with low unemployment, to the booming oilfields of Midland-Odessa, officials said.
Next month, the Permian Basin region, which has borrowed two or three investigators and supervisors a week from other West Texas cities since fall, will boost imports of other regions' employees to 12 per week, Crimmins said. Some of the workers on loan will come from North Texas, where staffing is considered adequate but turnover remains a problem.
McClure, former vice president of a Wall Street firm who took up the cause of abused children in the 1990s, first aired the agency's staffing troubles last week at a legislative hearing. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee was discussing problems CPS workers face in rural areas, when she warned lawmakers: "Right now, you've got a crisis going on in Austin."
Sen. Jane Nelson, the Flower Mound Republican who chairs the panel, responded, "Why is that?"
McClure said lawmakers should ask agency executives but then shared reports about CPS workers "descending on Austin to help with this huge backlog."
CPS defines a "backlogged case" as an allegation of abuse or neglect that CPS case readers or "screeners" have classified as needing investigation but on which no further action has been taken for at least 60 days. Normally, within several days, investigators are supposed to begin by visiting children and families. They also, though not necessarily immediately, interview alleged perpetrators and confer with adults, such as neighbors and school employees, who regularly have contact with the alleged victims.
Crimmins acknowledged that even after the help from other regions, there remain about 1,000 cases in Travis County that have gone at least six months without being investigated; and in the Midland-Odessa area, about 500. Still, he said, in the two labor-shortage areas, all "priority one" allegations of child maltreatment, which have to be investigated within 24 hours, "are cleared out."
McClure, the child advocate, said delays in checking out even "priority two" cases may be dangerous. In those, workers are supposed to visit children within 72 hours. But if a case is ignored for many months, she said, when CPS finally goes out, "the evidence is probably gone, the perp may have disappeared and the child may well recant."
The public would never tolerate such delays in responding to 911 calls, she said.
Last week, Dallas special investigator Roger Smotts, who normally operates from the agency's office on Westmoreland Road in Oak Cliff, said he investigated a Travis County "priority two" case opened last April. Though it didn't turn out to pose a serious threat, Smotts recalled being taken aback when he reported for work in eastern Travis County on March 11.
"I was overwhelmed when I walked in," said Smotts, 47, a former Midlothian police officer who jumped to CPS two years ago. He said he's helping an investigative social worker besieged with about 80 backlogged cases.
"You just never know" which of them could involve a suffering child, he said. "Things change over months."
Rushing to help
Jackie Clark-Winfrey, an investigative social worker based in Fort Worth, said she left her 16-year-old son in her sister's care to rush to Austin workers' sides.
"CPS is our family, so if one family member is having a crisis, everybody is," she said, explaining her decision to volunteer.
The CPS region in North Texas has contributed 73 volunteers, more than any other, to the Austin effort, Crimmins said.
He said he couldn't provide precise figures on the cost of importing workers to Travis County and Midland-Odessa because data aren't available yet on use of rental cars or reimbursement of employees for mileage on their personal cars.
The agency, though, has racked up at least $195,000 in costs for lodging, meals and overtime. If each visiting employee rented a car at the state rate of $35.50 a day, the tab has been as high as $233,000. However, savings achieved from not having to pay salary for unfilled positions will more than cover expenses incurred so far, Crimmins said.