Turnover takes toll on CPS

High caseloads hurt foster kids' care; '05 overhaul faulted

08:17 AM CDT on Tuesday, May 8, 2007
By ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – High turnover is taking a toll on the state workers who serve foster children, alarmed caseworkers, supervisors and child advocates say, making it harder to reunite families or otherwise bring stability to the children's lives.

In Plano, for instance, nearly half of the "conservatorship workers" have resigned since February. Turnover is also unusually high in parts of East and South Texas, a dozen current and former CPS workers and outside experts said last week.

They mainly blame huge caseloads, the result, many say, of bad decisions by lawmakers and state officials. And they fear a new fix moving through the Legislature won't do enough to slow the departures.

"It's ridiculous. It's impossible. You can't work a caseload that high and do a good job of it," said Victoria Kearns, who recently quit in Collin County when her caseload topped 60 children and adults – some four times the nationally recommended level.

When the Legislature overhauled Child Protective Services in 2005 in response to heartbreaking deaths of children who had been visited by state workers, it leaned on privatization to drive most of the conservatorship workers from the state's payroll. But Democrats and some skeptical Republicans objected, successfully demanding that outsourcing be spaced out over six years.

That left conservatorship workers insecure about their futures, just as other provisions – in a double whammy only a few child advocates foresaw – slammed these workers with a lot more work. So they leave.

For the caseworkers, high turnover means hundreds of foster children get assigned to a dwindling remnant of colleagues, who very often don't have time to see the children and are themselves approaching burnout.

State officials acknowledge the back-breaking workload.

"Caseloads are too high, and we have to get them down," said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.

CPS veterans and child advocates say rapid turnover of conservatorship workers means fewer families are reunified and more abused children are moved from foster home to foster home. Plus, caseworkers can't visit them regularly and detect problems before they mushroom.

"There are huge costs from children who don't learn to trust because they're bounced and bounced and bounced – juvenile delinquency and later crime and dissolution of marriages," said Texas Christian University psychology professor Karyn Purvis, an expert on abused children. "The societal costs are enormous."

Dr. Purvis said the supreme risk of high caseloads, though, is that the state won't learn until too late about dangerous foster homes, such as two in North Texas where toddler Christian Nieto and 5-year-old Katherine Frances were fatally beaten last fall.

Legislative action

Thirty percent of the state's nearly 1,200 conservatorship workers quit last fiscal year. The turnover dipped slightly – to 28 percent – from September through February. CPS has no data for March and April, Mr. Crimmins said.

He said improvements to child-abuse investigations ordered by the Legislature two years ago have increased the number of children removed from their birth families, which has piled more work on the conservatorship workers.

In winter, Carey Cockerell, the head of CPS' parent agency, asked legislative leaders to let him hire 500 more conservatorship caseworkers in the next two years. Both the House and Senate have budgeted $33 million for the jobs.

Some child advocates warn, though, that the additional workers won't stay unless pay is raised significantly. Mr. Crimmins says salaries start at $31,000.

"We can't expect to retain these workers when they can go to the teaching profession, still work with children, get paid 40 percent more and not have as much stress," said Madeline McClure, head of Dallas-based TexProtects, which advocates for abused and neglected children.

The advocates also point to studies showing that those holding bachelor's degrees in fields closely related to social work are more likely to stay in their jobs, but conservatorship workers – known in some parts of Texas as "legal" or "ongoing" workers – now may have a degree in any subject

She and others have mounted a last-ditch push to persuade lawmakers to cancel a plan to lay off 250 CPS workers who recruit foster homes and arrange adoptions.

The advocates argue that the $29 million of additional payments to private companies that would be needed to completely outsource foster home recruitment and adoption work should instead be used to hire 760 – not 500 – new conservatorship caseworkers, so they can see each of their foster children monthly.

With that money, CPS could also pay conservatorship workers the same $5,000 annual bonuses that lawmakers gave to child-abuse investigators and a newly hired group known as special investigators, who are former police officers.

The emphasis on investigations has left conservatorship workers feeling like second-class citizens in their own agency, current and former workers say. Investigators not only got the pay boost but also new tablet PCs and use of an online dictation service to help them complete paperwork faster.

With privatization looming, conservatorship workers weren't even sure they would keep their jobs.

"They beefed up one side of the equation and not the other," said Tamara Cuthrell, president of the Denton County Child Protective Services Board, which advises and supports the state agency's local office – for instance, by buying clothes and Christmas gifts for the area's foster children.

Sen. Jane Nelson, the Lewisville Republican who leads the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, recently said that she wishes the 2005 bill, which she wrote, had done more to protect foster children.

That legislation requires that by 2011 the conservatorship workers hand off to private companies their "case management" duties – a huge chunk of their responsibilities. This year, the mandate is being scaled back to a pilot program.

That leaves conservatorship workers in a bind, with some even taking care of foster children after-hours because there is a shortage of foster homes.

"They're the ones that are spending the nights in the CPS offices with the kids who've been removed," said Ms. McClure. "It's an around-the-clock job now."


The huge caseloads and long hours are taking a toll:

•Eight workers who serve Collin County's approximately 500 foster children have quit in three months – two, to become investigators and get the bigger paycheck and lower caseload. A ninth is on medical leave. That leaves only 8 of the 17 positions filled. It will be months before rookies now being sent to Plano have enough experience to handle more than a dozen or so cases each.

•The Denton office lost roughly half its 15 workers late last year. But after local legislators intervened, units were replenished.

•In Tyler, two well-regarded conservatorship caseworkers quit in the past month to switch to Adult Protective Services. State District Court Judge Carole Clark, who handles Smith County's family cases, called the resignations a body blow to the area's care of foster children.

"They have good hearts for this work with children," she said. But big caseloads and much driving to take children from placement to placement frustrated the workers, the judge said. "They're just a bus service any more," she said.

Ms. Kearns, 29, quit her Plano caseworker job in February – for the second time.

She said a supervisor she admires talked her into returning last summer, nine months after she'd resigned in frustration over her 65 to 70 cases.

"I love the work – just not the amount of it," she said.

Ms. Kearns said the supervisor and other former colleagues told her "things may be moving in a better direction."

But that hope was soon dashed. More co-workers began leaving. She inherited part of their caseloads. She finally quit, she said, after realizing she was neglecting her own 5-year-old daughter.

"She would say, 'Mom, play with me!' " Ms. Kearns recalled.

"Even when I was home, I was working," she said. "It takes a huge toll."


Many "conservatorship caseworkers" at Child Protective Services are quitting, and some complain of second-class status behind those who investigate possible child abuse. A look at the two main types of CPS caseworkers:


Conservatorship caseworker

Investigative caseworker

What they do

Help children who've been removed from their homes, at first working with biological parents on possibly reuniting the family and, if unsuccessful, pressing for adoption or a long-term foster placement.

Look into tips that children are being abused and neglected, and remove them if necessary.

How long they see a child

Usually, 12 to 18 months

30 to 60 days

Personality type

"Touchy feely"

"Adrenaline junkie"

Athletic metaphor

Marathon runner



Same for both: must have bachelor's degree and valid Texas driver's license and clear background checks.

Starting pay



How many are there



Average daily caseload*



NOTE: Conservatorship caseloads count the number of children, though if CPS is their "temporary managing conservator," parents count as one additional case. Investigative caseloads essentially count the number of households under suspicion – one case can involve more than one sibling.
SOURCES: Department of Family and Protective Services, Dallas Morning News research


Emphasis added by H4K Editor