Allyson Michele/Texas Standard

This story is part of a series examining Texas foster care. It looks at who’s involved and affected by what has been deemed a “broken” system.

At the end of 2016, Texas lawmakers agreed that caseworkers at the state’s Child Protective Services agency needed a raise ASAP. It wasn’t a perfect rollout, but a lot of employees wound up with $12,000 more dollars per year.

Earlier this week the Texas Senate approved a budget that increases funding for the state’s child welfare agency and members of the House have tentatively set aside funds for CPS to hire more caseworkers (read more about it here.)

These emergency pay increases are one step toward fixing the state’s struggling foster care system that a judge ruled unconstitutional in December 2015. The fact that caseworkers were overloaded and leaving the agency in droves – to the tune of about 25 percent of caseworkers a year – was a big reason for that decision.

To understand what it’s actually like to be a caseworker in the Texas Foster Care system, the Texas Standard’s Becky Fogel spoke with three caseworkers – two former CPS employees – and a current one. What she heard from all of them was that they really loved their jobs, but the work is tough.

Dimple Patel, TexProtects – Texas Association for the Protection of Children

I was 22 years old when I went to work at CPS. It was my first job out of college. I started in 2005, in Dallas County. I was an investigator and I did that for nine years. For the first six years I was an investigator and then the last three I was a supervisor.

Courtesy Dimple Patel

From Dimple Patel: It’s a picture of my badge when I was at CPS. This was taken on my very first day on the job on Nov. 7, 2005. Caseworkers always remember and celebrate their hire dates each year so it’s always been such a meaningful reminder of how young I was when I started.

I was really not prepared for the types of things I was going to see. You see a lot of terrible situations, you see kids that are in pain and suffering, you see families that are having a really hard time providing for their kids’ basic needs.

So poverty, those types of things, I just wasn’t exposed to when I was in college. And so for me it was really hard as a 22-year-old sometimes telling a mom ‘You can’t have your children’ … and I hadn’t really experienced anything in my life yet. And so I had to come to terms with that and grow and develop into an investigator, kind of as I was growing and developing into an adult.

Adrian Lopez, Child Protective Services Investigator

I’m a CPS Investigator here in Travis County based out of our Summit Office, and I’ve been working here for almost six years.

There’s so many different types of abuse and neglect, and even my family, my peers, or my friends – really they wouldn’t have an idea of the extent of abuse and neglect that we see as caseworkers.

Will Francis, government relations director for the National Association of Social Workers, Texas Chapter

I was a caseworker. I worked in conservatorship, which meant that we worked with the kids after they had been removed and now were hopefully going to work back toward their parents as they did services, but many different outcomes came from that.

Courtesy Will Francis

Will Francis, government relations director for the National Association of Social Workers, Texas Chapter.

When I got there, I found that I really did love the work. I really enjoyed working with families. I really enjoyed discovering how and why social work was so effective and also seeing how the system was not setup for social work. It was truly overwhelmed with paperwork; caseload sizes was a major issue.

We had moved as a society, I think, away from this idea of CPS is involved in your life because you need help, you need resources, you need support – and more ‘Hey, you did something wrong. Let’s look at it from a punitive standpoint, from a law enforcement standpoint.’

That was something I wasn’t comfortable [with]. I think we needed to be back, looking at CPS and child welfare as a truly social work arena.

Dimple Patel

That’s, I think, why a lot of caseworkers leave, right? Because you see this cycle with these families of generations and generations of abuse and you sit there and you think to yourself ‘Is what I’m doing helping or is it hurting?’

Adrian Lopez

Our team is pretty tenured. We haven’t had a high turnover rate in our unit. But I have also seen other units since I’ve started and it’s been a revolving door.

But the thing that I don’t see from a lot of the units sometimes is that unity, that comradery, just that teambuilding sometimes, just being able to drop what you’re doing and helping somebody out that might be struggling.

TexProtects

Advocates hold a poster during the 2017 Home Visiting and Child Protection Day at the Texas Capitol.

Dimple Patel

There were times when we would have to spend the night at the office because the right thing for that family was to remove those children. And I knew there may not be a placement and so we would have to end up spending the night at the office, sometimes for multiple nights.

That was one of the most heartbreaking parts of doing that job – is I couldn’t protect my caseworkers from the volume of work that comes in and we couldn’t always get out and see every child because there just wasn’t enough of us.

Will Francis

One of the things I always say – and I think I felt this very strongly when I was at the department – is children were not my number one priority. And it isn’t because I didn’t want them to be – and I certainly would have liked them to be my number one priority – but because my caseload sizes were so high, because my supervisor was always on me for my paperwork, because you have a court which is very demanding, because you have attorneys, therapists, parents – other adults – who are a lot better at getting your time than kids, you have to push the child further down your list.

You end up seeing them on visits. And so I would go to these kids and I would connect and it would be great and sometimes I’d bring them things and we’d talk and if they were old enough they would text me. But in general, that wasn’t where my focuses were, it was sort of appeasing all the other people on the case.

Until you shrink those caseload sizes and make it so the caseworker really has the time to spend with kids, to get to know kids, and focus on kids more, then I really think you’re going to continue see some of the really poor outcomes for these kids – who, once again, are just going to feel that a caseworker is just an interchangeable piece. It’s just somebody there to tell them what to do. Once again, another adult who is in their lives whose letting them down and that, to me, is just a huge indictment of the whole system.

The music you heard in this piece is from Jean Michel-Blais.

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  • Kyle April 13, 2017 at 12:18 am

    I recently have had to deal with CPS and they have my case all wrong. The incompetency is horrendous. No investigator should be 22 years old with an online degree. I wonder how many of the investigators were abused themselves? They should be excluded from employment. That introduces bias into investigations. Also these investigators should have PhDs in child psychology. There’s too much at stake to get these cases wrong.