The new commissioner of the state’s embattled child welfare agency wants lawmakers to make a sizable investment in Child Protective Services and the state’s foster care system.
Caseworkers will make higher salaries and the families and organizations that care for foster children will be paid more for their services if Hank Whitman, the agency’s leader, gets his way when state lawmakers draw up their two-year budget in 2017.
Whitman, a former chief of the Texas Rangers who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to his new post in April, sat down with The Texas Tribune to discuss the problems facing the Texas Department of Family and Protective services — and how he thinks a police officer’s perspective can help fix them.
Among those troubles are a spike in the number of children sleeping in CPS offices and psychiatric hospitals, high staff turnover and a spate of high-profile child deaths.
Whitman says his agency is hiring 20 “crime analysts” to help track down at-risk kids. Regional managers must re-apply for their jobs. And their staffs have been ordered to improve their relationships with local police departments.
As for caseworkers: “They’re not making enough money to do what they do,” Whitman said.
The agency’s new leader declined to speculate about a price tag on the package of reforms, but says he has support from state lawmakers.
The full transcript of the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is below:
Texas Tribune: What’s it like to take the helm of an agency you’re brand new to, especially at a time when the agency has generated negative headlines?
Hank Whitman: When I was first asked about this—
TT: By Gov. Abbott?
HW: By Gov. Abbott’s office — I did eventually speak to him — I knew it was a huge undertaking. To say that is really an understatement. Compared to what I did before — not to say that chief of the Rangers is not an important job — but it was nothing in comparison with this. I’ve been here a month and a half and I feel like I’ve been here 12 years.
This is a huge, huge ship. You’re talking 12,750 employees, and a $3.1 billion budget over two years, that, to me, is quite honestly running very lean right now.
It’s my duty as a fiscal manager to make sure that we spend the taxpayers’ money wisely, efficiently and productively, but we have to make sure we take care of the children and the elderly.
TT: I hear you saying it’s a lean operation. At the same time, there’s been a lot of legislative interest in the agency lately. Are you going to ask lawmakers for a significant increase in funding?
HW: Yes, I am. I sure am.
Now, we’re still working on those LARs [Legislative Appropriations Requests]. We want to make sure we’re asking for the right funding that we need. Certainly, pay increases are going to be an issue there, because they’re not making enough money to do what they do.
Put yourself in their shoes. I’ve worked around CPS caseworkers all my life because we had to work hand-in-hand when it came on assault of children, deaths of children, and I know the hours they put in. So you have to put yourself in those workers’ shoes, when they leave in the morning to go to work, heavy case load, because we’re trying to fill those positions. That’s one of the things that’s a priority on me, is retention.
TT: Last week, there was a story in the Austin American-Statesman talking about pay raises for more senior staff, but it sounds like you’re pushing for pay increases across the board, caseworkers included?
HW: I am. It’s very important for me.
TT: How much?
HW: Well, we’re still in the process of doing the research on that. But you tell me, would you take a job on that’s as important as this, wake up in the morning, visit how many homes? 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. That’s a tough job.
I came into police work because it was a calling for me. They came into this type of work because it was a calling for them. They all know that.
TT: Let’s talk about your background. As you mentioned, it’s in law enforcement, which I think is a first for a Department of Family and Protective Services commissioner. What is a Texas Ranger doing at the top of the agency for child protection and foster care, and how does that shape your priorities?
HW: The question I always ask staff that I meet with is, “Which one of y’all think that a policeman is not a social worker?” I say, “Don’t answer, just think about it.” And then I tell people this:
You know, for the last 20 years I’ve been an investigator, and I’ve seen the worst of the worst that can happen to a child and the elderly. The worst. We have to be with those families during a time of tragedy. We help them with our victim’s services. We’re there with them many times to see what we can do because they’re poor. We are not just investigators. We handle a lot of that.
TT: The Department of Family and Protective Services employs both social workers and law enforcement officers in investigator roles. That said, we often hear about cultural tensions between those groups at the agency. What are you doing to ease those tensions?
HW: I let them know, I work in the same world that y’all work in. It’s just I have to see the end product of something that goes bad. We understand what they see. Caseworkers see things that I hope people never have to see. It’s bad out there. Not all of them, but most of them, it’s a bad situation.
I think they’re eased at my explanation that I’m a caseworker as well, because I am. I’ve learned to appreciate that hard job that they have.
You have 30,000 children any given month under the state’s conservatorship, and then do the math on the workers.
TT: That leads into my next question. Talking specifically about the death of Leiliana Wright in Grand Prairie, that case has brought a lot of attention to the backlogs caseworkers face. What concrete steps are you taking to reduce those caseloads?
HW: First of all, we’re going to have a better working relationship with law enforcement. That’s not an option. Our 140 special investigators — I would say 98% are former police officers already. I have charged them to become better acquainted with their local law enforcement to help out. We need to have that better connection, and we’re going to have that better connection.
Now, in that specific case you’re talking about, when I came here the first week, I asked my special investigators, “Where are you getting your information on people in the homes?” Well, I find out, they do have access to the local agencies that provide them with very basic information, like criminal case histories. I said that’s not good enough. I can’t send a caseworker into a really bad situation that’s going to save a child, if they already know things are really bad.
So we’re implementing 20 new crime analysts that are going to be trained by the Department of Public Safety. We’re going to call them information analysts. Those information analysts will be 24-7, available to these investigators, to call in and say, “This is the address we’re going to. These are the people in there. Tell us everything you need to know about them.”
TT: These are new agency employees?
HW: We have the existing FTEs (full time employee positions) right now, so we’re going to use some of those.
That information is going to include their criminal case history, who’s in the house, is there a sex offender in the house, how many police calls have been made to that residence, and what kind of calls were made there. We need to know.
TT: Are these also former police officers, like the special investigators?
HW: No, they’re trained crime analysts.
I want to have that program kicked off by the end of December, and that will be supervised by the statewide intake commissioner, with the collaboration of the Department of Public Safety. We’ve already met with them, and they said, let’s not wait. We’re running a pilot program in Williamson County and Milam.
This has already hit the fuel with our special investigators, and let me tell you, they are elated.
TT: So this — in addition to higher caseworker pay — that encompasses the plan to reduce caseloads?
HW: And retention. We want to make sure our people on the ground know there’s people up here who support them, that we are concerned about their safety and their wellbeing. That’s what they need a lot of right now. A lot of them feel like, “Nobody’s watching me out there. I could get hurt.”
TT: I want to talk about a separate, but I think related, issue facing the agency, which is foster care capacity. We’ve written a lot about kids sleeping in CPS offices and psychiatric hospitals, due to a lack of homes for them. So, same question: What concrete steps are you taking to address capacity?
HW: We have met with numerous providers that are already in the field. You get a better idea of how difficult those placements are.
Most of them are your high needs children, where our contractors don’t contract for those types of children, so it’s difficult to place them. It sickens me that they have to go in an office like that, but I’d much rather see them go there than—
We’re working on the problem. We’ve got to put them somewhere, where there’s somebody watching over them.
TT: What about, would you consider higher pay to incentivize providers to take children in?
What we have now is a group of providers that we’ve met with that are willing to take on the task. It’s all about additional funding to raise the rate on it. We don’t control that. That’s controlled across the street (at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission) and at the Capitol. All we can do is recommend, this is what we need.
And I can assure you that will be looked at very closely by our lawmakers because I’ve met with numerous of them, and they’re all like, “What do we need to do to get this taken care of?”
We always know it’s going to be funding, and so we’ve got to figure out a way, OK, we’ve got to get this funding up, if that’s the solution. And that is the solution. Everything deals with money.
TT: I know you said it’s early, but do you have any sense of what dollar figure we’re talking about?
HW: No, I don’t. We’re stilling trying to figure out what that dollar amount is.
We’re not leaving it entirely up to our providers to give us that, because a lot of them work on 70% funding from us, and they raise 30% on their own. Well, when we’re talking about those high-needs children that we’re having difficulties with placement, we certainly feel that rates are going to have to go up for the providers to provide adequate services to the clients. So that’s where we’re at right now.
I’ve been here a month and a half, but I’m taking it in through a fire hose, my friend, and — I’m not saying I’m comfortable; I’ll probably never know everything — but those questions are getting fewer and fewer.
TT: Let’s go back to a little bit before the start of your tenure. In April, runaway foster youth Meechaiel Criner was charged with the murder of Haruka Weiser, a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. Have you been briefed on that case?
HW: Yes, I have. I’m glad you brought that up, because the same information analysts that we’re talking about, we do have some runaway foster kids out there. We’ve got to find them.
TT: What are you doing to find them?
HW: Those crime analysts, at this moment, those same ones are being fed that info. I sent an email out through my deputy, asking all regions to please start gathering the names because they do have them. What’s the most serious ones, let’s get them working over here, let’s get the information analysts on this so we can get it to law enforcement.
Here’s what’s so good about it: I have connections all over the state of Texas. Most of these sheriffs, most of the chiefs of police are friends of mine. And they’ve committed to me, that whatever it takes to help, they’re going to do it. So if we get new leads, we’ll ask our local law enforcement, would you please go with our special investigators and let’s go look for this child.
TT: You were appointed by the governor. In your talks with him, have you gotten the sense that he thinks working with law enforcement should be a priority?
HW: He thinks there needs to be a closeness between law enforcement and, certainly, Adult Protective Services and Child Protective Services — and don’t forget about our child care licensing centers, because things happen there too.
This is not a police agency, but when you hurt a child, that’s a crime.
TT: How often do you meet with the governor?
HW: I meet with his staff weekly. I’ve met him several times.
He doesn’t joke around. He said, “Please, let’s get this thing done.”
Now, we’re kind of missing the other big elephant in the room, which is that most of these cases of severe child abuse cases are dealing with drugs. We’re going to have to start looking, at some point in time, what are we going to do about prevention on these folks to get them off of that, so they stop hurting the children?
TT: My last couple of questions are about the foster care lawsuit. What is your opinion on the ruling from U.S. District Judge Janis Jack, which found that Texas had systemically violated children’s civil rights?
HW: I don’t know why her opinion’s like that. I’ve read this lawsuit. We are already taking steps, outlined in the Sunset Commission (report), to start getting it in the right direction. This all started with Judge (John) Specia, who did a really good job of taking a proactive role in that.
She’s apparently sat down and made her opinion on that.
TT: Do you disagree with her opinion?
HW: No. As many children as this agency has served and done well for, are there going to be some problems out there, where the children are going to be abused in some type of foster care? Well, yes. We want to stop that. We want to do better at making sure that we vet out wherever these children go.
She’s the judge, and if it turns out to be what it is, then [that’s] what it is. I feel like this agency — I would hope to think they wouldn’t indict every one of these caseworkers out there. They’re really hard workers. As you can tell right now, I like my workers on the ground. They mean a lot to me.
TT: Thank you so much for your time.
HW: Now, you didn’t ask me about regional directors.
TT: What about them?
HW: I’m asking them to reapply (for their jobs). Those are the generals. I’m big on accountability. I expect them to keep a close eye on everything that goes on in their region.
TT: Are you expecting not to re-hire many of them?
HW: I don’t know yet. They’re all going to go through an interview process, but we’re opening it up.
TT: Thanks again for your time.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Top image: Hank Whitman, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, took office May 1.
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