Eight years ago, a U.S. district judge found Texas’ foster care system so broken that it failed to meet the basic promises of care.
Today, the system’s problems are far from solved — and now there are new leaders at the helm. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services recently announced a new head of child protective investigations, Marta Talbert.
The change comes as the embattled agency struggles with record high staff turnover: 4 in 10 investigators left their job in fiscal year 2022. The department has experienced a series of leadership changes over the years as it faces criticism for a number of issues, including overburdening caseworkers, putting foster kids at risk and exposing children in the state’s care to abuse.
Bob Garrett, the Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, has been following issues in Texas’ child protective system for years and said Talbert has a long history with the agency.
“As a career CPS person, she’s done everything — caseworker and being a supervisor and working her way up through the ranks of administration. She was director of field for all of the regional offices and has for over a year been the interim head of this new part of the agency” that conducts investigations, Garrett said. “And now the big boss, Stephanie Muth, has made her the permanent associate commissioner for Child Protective Investigations.”
» GET MORE NEWS FROM AROUND THE STATE: Sign up for our weekly ‘Talk of Texas’ newsletter
Garrett said it’s not known why Talbert’s predecessor departed.
“I can tell you that there’s been an ongoing sort of underreported struggle or tension in the culture at the agency since the Legislature started bringing in former cops, law enforcement people, starting in the mid-2000s. You basically have people with a law enforcement mentality working cheek by jowl with social workers. And that doesn’t always work too well,” he said. “Marta Talbert really is the first [person in this role] in a while to have sort of the social worker background. And her two predecessors were both former cops from the Austin PD and Travis County Sheriff’s Department, respectively. I talked to one longtime CPS employee who said it’s kind of refreshing that we have someone who’s been here her whole career.”
Garrett said the agency is facing a number of problems right now, including a long-standing federal lawsuit about the state of Texas foster care and the ongoing privatization of community-based care.
“And we have a larger thing going on that has also been underreported, which is the Legislature has really been in the thrall of parental rights groups and advocates and has been passing a bunch of laws that make it harder for CPS to remove children,” he said. “And that has two effects. One is to ease pressure on our overburdened foster care system because there’s fewer kids being removed, which is good. On the other hand, there are a lot of people worried that young kids are at risk are being left in dangerous situations.”
Garrett said now that the legislative session is over, it will be easier to see how Muth, Gov. Greg Abbott’s third appointed commissioner of Protective Services, goes about her role.
“Now we’re just waiting to see what her agenda is. [One priority] is trying to improve retention and reduce turnover. I’m told she has some initiatives in the works. So you have Stephanie Muth getting good reviews from some of the child welfare providers who say that she really shows a certain confidence that this job is not too big for her. She’s been a veteran of the state social and health care bureaucracy,” he said. “We’ve had seven different commissioners over protective services in 12 years, and we’ve had eight over at Health and Human Services, which also is a defendant in foster care lawsuits. So we are in great need of some stability.”