Child Protective Services: not enough to go around

Associated Press

AUSTIN — Texas Child Protective Services is sending investigators to help with backlogs of cases created by understaffing in offices in Austin and Midland-Odessa areas.

Staff shortages in CPS’ investigative branches have been problems in both regions since the fall, officials said. Even after help from other regions, Travis County still has about 1,000 cases that have gone at least six months without being investigated, and about 500 such cases are in the Midland-Odessa area, CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins told The Dallas Morning News.

However, all “priority one” allegations of child maltreatment that must be investigated within 24 hours “are cleared out,” Crimmins said. He said the state agency has redoubled efforts to hire and retain workers.

Twenty-three investigators at a time are being sent to the Austin area to work on the backlog in Travis County. Crimmins said that since Jan. 9, the Austin area’s backlog of cases has been cut in half without increasing colleagues’ workloads back home.

“We are going all out,” he said. “We’re certainly not where we want to be.”

Since the fall, the Midland-Odessa area has borrowed two or three investigators and supervisors a week from other West Texas cities. Next month, the region will boost imports of other regions’ employees to 12 per week, Crimmins said.

CPS defines a “backlogged case” as an allegation of abuse or neglect that CPS case readers or “screeners” have classified as needing investigation but on which no further action has been taken for at least 60 days. Normally, investigators are supposed to visit children and families within several days of a report.

Caseworkers also interview alleged perpetrators and confer with adults who regularly have contact with the alleged victims, though not necessarily immediately.

The agency’s staffing troubles were first aired last week at a legislative hearing by Madeline McClure, executive director of Dallas-based TexProtects, a research and advocacy group that seeks to improve the state’s prevention of child abuse.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee was discussing problems that CPS workers face in rural areas, when she warned lawmakers: “Right now, you’ve got a crisis going on in Austin.”

Sen. Jane Nelson, the Flower Mound Republican who chairs the panel, responded: “Why is that?”

McClure said lawmakers should ask agency executives but then shared reports about CPS workers “descending on Austin to help with this huge backlog.”

McClure tells the newspaper that the manpower shortage in Travis County is so severe that child abuse deaths there last year surged to 13, more than twice the annual average in the previous eight years.

CPS officials said they couldn’t link the staffing crisis to the increase in deaths, but they acknowledged that investigation delays create additional risks for children.

“In seven of those cases there was no prior family involvement with CPS,” spokesman Patrick Crimmins said of the Travis County deaths. Although two Travis County youths died of abuse in 2011 while CPS was investigating, he said, “even in those instances we cannot link specific outcomes to a general shortage of investigators.”