SAN ANTONIO — If anything, foster care is the one place where vulnerable, at-risk kids should be safe.
These are children who have been removed from troubled homes. While no one would ever expect a foster home and state oversight to replace a functional and loving family, it should at least be safer than a broken home.
Why else do the removal?
Yet, in fiscal 2013, seven young Texans died in foster care as a result of abuse and neglect from the caregiver. That's the highest number since 2007.
The standard should be zero.
It's hard not to imagine that high caseloads for Child Protective Services workers aren't having an impact on quality care and monitoring.
Foster care workers with CPS are tasked with checking in on these kids to ensure everything is OK in foster homes. The best practice is 17 children per worker, according to the Child Welfare League of America, but Texas comes up well short of this standard.
The typical CPS worker juggled 32 ongoing cases in 2013, or so says the annual report for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
The state has increased funding for DFPS, which should lead to more hiring. But even with this boost, that workload will still be nowhere near the standard for best practice.
“At one point, I had 40 kids on my caseload,” said Ashley Harris, a former CPS foster care worker and child welfare policy expert at Texans Care for Children, a nonprofit and nonpartisan policy organization. “And I can tell you that I was unable to see them monthly as required by the feds, which really compromised not only their safety, but just building that relationship with them.”
Texans Care for Children would like to see additional funding to lower these caseloads.
Unfortunately, DFPS Commissioner John Specia has pushed back on this very notion. Here's what he said at a recent House hearing when asked about the dangers of high caseloads.
“I have actually looked at the caseloads in the deaths and some people had high caseloads, but a lot of people have had either average caseloads or very low caseloads, so I haven't been able to draw a direct correlation on that,” he said.
He then thanked the Legislature for the additional funding last session.
“The Legislature has been very responsive to the needs of this agency since 2006.”
That's nice, but it's not enough. The agency remains critically overburdened, underfunded and undervalued.
While Specia might not be able to make a definitive connection between high caseloads and foster care fatalities, that doesn't justify the dynamic.
Besides, high caseloads certainly are one of the reasons workers leave the agency.
In response to the spike in foster care deaths, DFPS enacted a number of measures to improve child safety in foster care. These include unannounced visits to foster homes and foster kinship homes as well as reviews of all regular and frequent visitors to ensure background checks.
These are common-sense measures, but is it reasonable to expect workers with such high caseloads to always do these extra steps?
“DFPS put all these new mandates on workers to go see these children but did not provide that additional guidance or support to make that happen in a way that is best for the kids,” Harris said.
Nearly 28,000 children were in state custody in fiscal 2013, with nearly 17,000 in some type of paid foster care.
Most of the rest were with extended family.
So, here are two other questions worth considering: Does the state have the resources it needs to do what is best for the kids it protects and serves? On balance, would lower caseloads help do what's best for these kids?
This last one is a no-brainer, the other a matter of priorities. Kids first.