Editorial: Texas’ punitive system makes commissioner’s job “un-doable”

Kelly-White

Kelly White, the CEO of Austin Children’s Shelter (and co-CEO of the LIFT Alliance), wrote an OpEd for the Austin American-Statesman this week about the challenges we, as a community, and Texas’ Child Protection Services system, face in protecting our most vulnerable: children. She does a wonderful job explaining the barriers we face and presents what the community needs to do better.

We Must Work Together to Maintain a System That Protects Children

“The headline on Saturday’s Metro and State section read, “Family Services Chief Resigns.” Reading further we learn just a few of the lurid details associated with recent child abuse deaths in the State of Texas.  Texas children have died, and as a fervent frontier state, we will exact our revenge. Howard Baldwin, the man at the helm of the State agency charged with protecting children will be among those who fall.

I don’t know Howard Baldwin. I have heard good things. He is supposed to be smart, thoughtful and trying to do the right thing for children. While I don’t know Mr. Baldwin I do know something about the Texas system for Child Protection: I know that Mr. Baldwin had an “undoable” job.

It is easy to immediately point the finger at funding. There is no doubt that DFPS, the state agency charged with protecting children, is massively underfunded. Caseworkers have caseloads that are more than twice the recommended level and a new caseworker who survives past the six month mark is considered seasoned.

In 2010 there were more than 264,000 child abuse and neglect reports and more than 231,000 reports assigned for investigation. 65,948 Texas children were confirmed as abuse victims and 231 children died from abuse and neglect in 2011. As the CEO at the Austin Children’s Shelter, I know these statistics as more than just numbers. I know that no child EVER ends up at the Austin Children’s Shelter without having endured what to most of us is unimaginable pain and loss. And I see only a fraction of the “cases” that each child protective caseworker deals with on a daily basis. These investigators and caseworkers are dealing with life and death triage every single day. And I know that they care deeply about the lives of the children they are striving to help.

Unfortunately, I have also seen a rigid, punitive system that rarely allows for the best judgment of a caseworker regarding a child or family’s disposition. Caseworkers are forced to make families fit into narrow bureaucratic processes that are often not the best thing for families and children. The same day as I read about Commissioner Baldwin’s resignation I also talked with a prospective adoptive parent who told me of the abuse her future daughter endured after going into the foster care system. The young girl had been placed with an Aunt without there being any assessment or review. In fact, when a child is removed from their home caseworkers are instructed to always first try to place the child with a family member – a policy that entirely disregards everything we know about the cycle of violence in families.

What if we had more money to ensure that every child and family is fully assessed to ensure the absolute best placement? What if we had more money to provide for protective child care and parental coaching – a much less costly and more effective means of family intervention? What if we had more respite care for families in distress, domestic violence shelter beds for moms trying to protect their children, and affordable substance abuse and mental health services for adolescents? What if, instead of a punitive and retaliatory system, we provided opportunities, resources and options to help families be successful?

Texas ranks among the bottom in funding for child protective services, and more than 50 percent of its funding is passed through from the federal government. This reliance on federal funds means that the federal government has a significant say in how the state CPS budget is spent. Only 1 percent of the DFPS budget is spent on child abuse prevention and only 6 cents of every dollar is spent on keeping children safe at home. Even when removing children from their homes and putting them in alternative placements, caseworkers are given little discretion in determining what they perceive to be the best placement options.  It’s no wonder that retention of good employees within the CPS system is so low. These workers deal daily with life and death decisions, with too few resources and with almost no control over outcomes.

Yes – someone should pay for the deaths of these children. In fact, many “someones” should pay. I spent years angry with the DFPS bureaucracy because of their seeming unwillingness to put the needs of children first. Eventually I learned that their hands are tied by their funding and associated mandates. Then my anger was directed at the state legislature. How can they not prioritize the safety of abused children? I now realize that effective change will only happen if and when we all come together across public and private; local, state and federal; and thought leaders and grassroots activists to create a system that always puts the health and welfare of individual children first.”

An OpEd as it appeared in the Austin American-Statesman Thursday, November 15, 2012

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