Wednesday, July 20, 2016

CPS reform must start with boosting pay

Express-News Editorial Board

 |on July 19, 2016

Recently, Henry “Hank” Whitman, the new head ofTexas Department of Family and Protective Services, outlined a 10-point plan to improve Child Protective Services.

The plan was explained in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, and it has many merits, particularly its focus on supporting front-line workers and holding agency leadership accountable. A retired chief of the Texas Rangers, Whitman’s law enforcement background is an intriguing match with an agency that primarily provides social work. But to truly improve CPS, Whitman and Abbott need to advocate for significantly better pay for agency workers. It starts there, and without a dramatic improvement in pay, other reforms will have little or no impact.

Why focus on pay first? Because CPS has an extremely high turnover rate, and that high turnover rate leads to extremely high caseloads for existing workers. High caseloads endanger kids. If the state of Texas wants to reduce turnover at CPS, and in turn, reduce caseloads, it will need to dramatically raise salaries for investigators and caseworkers.

In public comments, Whitman has been supportive of improving pay for CPS workers down in the trenches, but he has yet to offer specifics. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, he acknowledged the stress and dangers CPS workers face on a daily basis, and how their pay pales in comparison to those of police officers and teachers.

“Would you take a job on that’s as important as this, wake up in the morning, visit how many homes?” he said to the Tribune. “You have a family you have to take care of, you’ve got to make sure you do the right thing and make the right decisions out there — for a pay that’s less than a schoolteacher’s pay, less than a police officer’s pay.”

This is a point F. Scott McCown, a law professor and director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, made in recent testimony to Texas lawmakers, noting the free market is telling lawmakers to boost pay.

He’s right. Beyond having a passion to ensure vulnerable kids are safe, why would anyone take a job at CPS? That person could make more money, with less stress and danger, as a teacher working nine months out of the year. That likely means raising the starting salary for a caseworker to the ballpark area of $50,000.

Doing this right will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But not doing it right has costs, too. If lawmakers go cheap on agency pay raises, they will be throwing good money away because there won’t be enough incentive for workers to stay. It’s worth noting that it costs taxpayers $54,000 each time a caseworker leaves the agency, according to recent a review of the agency.

The problems facing CPS are daunting. We have a foster care system so broken it often damages the kids it’s supposed to serve and protect. Funding for preventing abuse is negligible, and notably, prevention was the last point in Whitman’s 10-point plan. That seems like it should be at or near the top of the list.

No one expects Child Protective Services to be fixed right away. Fighting for better pay as a way to reduce turnover and caseloads would create a foundation for future success.

MySanAntonio.com