“We saw what happened whenever prisons were privatized,” the caseworker told the Observer.
For Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworkers, no two days are exactly the same. Jennifer, a CPS worker in Houston, juggles more than a dozen cases at a time and is responsible for virtually every decision made for each child. When she’s not visiting kids, she’s working with their therapists, teachers, doctors, families and lawyers to get them proper care.
It’s a “make or break you” kind of job, she says, and one she believes could get worse if a proposal to privatize foster care passes the House this week.
Senate Bill 11 is a massive CPS overhaul that includes provisions to outsource foster care to private contractors in eight of the state’s 11 CPS regions and further privatize case management in two regions by 2019. The bill, filed by Senator Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, is being debated on the House floor Thursday.
Schwertner sees the overhaul as a necessary response to an agency that’s been in various states of crisis for the past decade. Last year, more than 200 Texas children died from abuse and neglect; at least 28 of them had open CPS cases. But some advocates think SB 11 fails to address one key component: caseworkers like Jennifer.
“I just feel like they’re shifting the blame,” said Jennifer, who spoke to the Observer on the condition of anonymity. Jennifer is not her real name. “This isn’t going to benefit anyone.”
High caseworker turnover has plagued CPS for years, but things have steadily improved since lawmakers approved $142.4 million in emergency funding for the agency last December. The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), CPS’ parent agency, was allowed to hire more than 800 new employees and give caseworkers $12,000 raises. That led to significant drops in turnover and faster response times to critical cases of abuse and neglect.
Critics say that because contractors are paid per child, the Legislature’s privatization proposal introduces a profit incentive to case management. They also allege that it lacks protections for caseworkers, such as limiting caseload size and ensuring competitive salaries.
Schwertner, in his defense of the bill on the Senate floor, said contractors need maximum flexibility.
“If you’re mandating certain employment arrangements, I believe that goes one step too far,” he said.
Still, Jennifer fears that the profit motive would drive more kids into the system. Then her caseloads would balloon and her long, draining days would become too much to handle. She says she’d rather quit than work for a private contractor.
“We saw what happened whenever prisons were privatized,” she said.
Will Francis, government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, worries that compounded with potential changes in health insurance, retirement funds and uncertainty over caseloads, private caseworkers could end up in the same circumstances that crippled the state agency.
“All of those things are up in the air,” Francis said.
Caseloads, in particular, also depend on the funding allocated by budget writers this session.
“Probably one of the most critical things is it’s got to be funded at a level that it has a chance of being successful,” said Wayne Carson, CEO of ACH Child and Family Services, the lead contractor on a Fort Worth privatization pilot program.
Carson says his caseworkers should manage no more than a dozen cases at a time in order to provide better outcomes. While he supports privatization, Carson said lawmakers have previously been hesitant to give contractors enough money to cover operating costs.
“This new $12,000 increase has put the CPS workers at a higher level than the traditional caseworker or foster care support staff on the private side,” Carson told the Observer.
Based on early estimates, Carson says comparable ACH employees are making $3,000 to $6,000 less each year than state caseworkers, and his organization is trying to find money to make up the difference.
The details of funding privatized foster care are still up for debate, but so far things haven’t been promising. ACH has had to put in $6 million of its own funding to keep the pilot program afloat. The Legislative Budget Board claims the shift to private case management laid out in Schwertner’s bill will have no added cost to the state over the next two years, whereas representatives for DFPS testified before the House Human Services committee last month that it would cost nearly $19 million. Lawmakers are still trying to reconcile the estimates and this session’s tight budget.
“I really fear for the future of CPS,” Jennifer said.