AUSTIN, TX (Texas Tribune) - On paper, Texas Child Protective Services, one of the nation’s largest child abuse investigative and foster care teams, is a formidable agency, equipped with a two-year $2.5 billion budget and about 8,000 employees.
But like most child welfare agencies in other states, it has had its share of adversity. After a series of horrific child abuse cases on the agency’s watch, CPS underwent a decade of reorganization, pilot programs and internal audits, as well as admonishments endured by agency officials trotted before the Texas Legislature. Officials say agency reforms have made clear improvements.
He said he remembered “when the state didn’t pick up a portion of foster care, and it was up to the counties and you had four kids that need protection. But the counties only had money for one.”
Since 2005, laptops and cameras have been placed into the hands of investigators in the field. And there is a current four-year effort to replace the agency’s creaky record-keeping software. This year, for the first time, the agency has outside consultants looking at its operation. There is also a plan in the wings to privatize foster care.
Although much of its funds come from federal dollars, CPS’s budget remains stout. Its current two-year budget is nearly $800 million more than what was approved for 2006-07.
But the agency still faces problems. And what is causing significant unease in the agency is a federal court case in Corpus Christi that goes to trial Dec. 1. With no settlement talks in the works, officials fear the case could derail CPS’s progress if the state loses.
In 2011, Children’s Rights Inc., a New York-based advocacy group, filed a suit targeting the state’s long-term foster care system, a legal state known as permanent managing conservatorship, or PMC. The advocacy group says CPS keeps its charges for far too long, violating the children’s constitutional rights.
The lawsuit says that many children in the system face abuse. “These children languish in state care even though as of August 2010, nearly three-quarters of children in the state’s PMC were legally free for adoption,” it reads.
In part, the Children’s Rights lawsuit calls for a court monitor for CPS to enforce reforms that include raising standards for workers and setting lower caseload limits. The lawsuit also calls for the state to quit placing children with no special needs in more restrictive, residential foster homes and for better staffing ratios in group foster homes.
Tiffany Gorman, 19, was once a member of the plaintiff class in the lawsuit but has since aged out of it. The suit covers children currently in long-term foster care.
Gorman was placed in foster care after she was removed from her Amarillo home at age 11. In her first month with CPS, she said she was placed in 15 foster care homes.
Because her mother would not legally surrender her parental rights, Gorman, like many Texas foster care children, could not be adopted and remained in foster care.
Today she lives in Dallas, where she works as a welder and forklift operator.
Specia notes that there are areas for improvement, but he added that there is no blanket violation of foster children’s civil rights.
But are all 28,000 in Texas’ foster care system having their rights violated? That’s not going to be easy to prove, he said.
Texas, he said, has made significant progress since 2006, when more money began coming to CPS
Other states sued by Children’s Rights lawsuits have been forced to comply with costly reforms, such as a court-ordered monitor, new computer systems and mandated reduced caseloads, which requires the hiring of more workers.
But Specia said he does not think the change Children’s Rights lawsuits have brought in other states has been that dramatic.
He also said he believes the advocacy group will have a tough time proving its case.
However, Specia acknowledged that if Texas loses before U.S. District Judge Janis Jack in its nonjury trial, it could cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars,” depending on what CPS is ordered to do.
Lowry has heard this criticism before.
But Lowry also insisted that whatever expense incurred to correct basic agency standards is far less than pouring money into a system in which children remain in custody for years.
The agency continues to battle issues like high workloads for caseworkers, which now average about 19 a month for investigators and 30 for foster care workers, and the high caseloads force many to leave the agency.
There are also new pressures stemming from a robust state economy.
Job seekers are flocking to employment centers like Dallas and Houston. And the oil boom in West Texas and the Eagle Ford Shale, south of San Antonio, means rents are way up, taxing the salaries of caseworkers who make on average about $37,000 according to CPS.
Despite the pressures, CPS under Specia’s leadership has garnered less of the Legislature’s scorn. His straightforward answers to lawmakers’ questions and willingness to consider different approaches has earned him praise.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/04/25/federal-lawsuit-threatens-derail-texas-cps/.