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Abandoned on the Front Lines DHS caseworkers are underpaid, underappreciated, and under the gun BY LISBETH LIPARI NO MATTER WHAT SIDE of the desk you sit on, the Texas Department of that’s truly human. For clients, the stigma and humiliation of seeking welfare are often magnified by a seemingly indifferent bureaucracy. For caseworkers, the frustrations of chronic under-staffing, overloaded case schedules and the endless tedium of paperwork often leave little time for any kind of human touch. Add the caseworker’s extremely low pay and limited opportunity for advancement, and it becomes extremely difficult to tell who is more demoralized, the client or the caseworker. Lisa, for example, a CPS worker who recently quit after only five months on the job, said she logged an average of 50 hours a week or more investigating suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. Between interviewing children, teachers, neighbors, and relatives, Lisa said she had little time for paperwork, the necessary evil of bureaucracy. “You have to document every contact you make,” she said. “Even if the case is unfounded and abuse has not occurred. Supposedly you have 30 days to close a case [determining whether a child should be removed from the home and filing the required forms], but it’s a joke.” In the past few years in Travis County alone, the number of children removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect has nearly quadrupled, from 180 children in 1988 to 692 in 1991, according to DHS statistics. Statewide, the total number of abuse and neglect investigations rose from a depressing average of 38,978 cases in 1979 to an abominable 73,805 in 1988. However, perhaps because the Texas population also grew significantly during this time, between 1985 and 1989 the department’s abuse and neglect rate remained constant at 23 reported incidents per 1,000 children. Meanwhile, the total number of CPS caseworkers rose only slightly, from 1,710 workers in 1988 to 2,177 in 1991, again ac cording to DHS statistics. Ironically, during this same period,, employee turnover rate in the program remained steady at a pathetic 29 percent. But these problems aren’t restricted to Child February 1991, the average monthly number of Aid to Families with Dependent Children to 232,347, and the number of Food Stamp cases leaped from 375,343 in 1988 to 556,534 in February 1991.Yet at the same time, Texas continues to spend the second-least amount of money nationwide on programs helping children and poor families, a dubious distinction which has not changed in over a decade. In talking to DHS caseworkers, one gets the sense that the task is something akin to using a teaspoon to empty the ocean. “I understand that people in this department used to have 45 to 50 cases apiece,” said Michael, a caseworker with CPS who requested that his real name not be used. “The national recommendation is that a worker have no more than 25 cases, and I now have 30. At a certain point it gets to be crazy, you can’t keep up with anything. Right now I have a bunch of crack mothers, and I don’t have time to do for them what I can. You just can’t do things, you start falling behind, and you start letting things slide.. “The whole point of our program is to break the cycle of abuse, and that’s not being done,” he continued. “Kids who could potentially GAIL WOODS become abusers later aren’t getting the counseling they need.” “My case load was way too high for a new worker,” said Lisa, a Child Protective Service investigator who lasted about five months with the agency, and also asked that her real name not be used. “In my first month I had over 30 cases, and that’s ridiculous for a new worker. “When I handed in my resignation I probably had 55 open cases,” she continued. “And although there are work load management laws, there are people here who have over 100 open cases. Obviously, the workers have seen the kids, but they haven’t closed the case. Most people try and meet the 10-day deadline \(for investigating Level II, or supposedly lessthat’s the kind of thing that makes you not sleep at night.” The department claims that CPS work loads range from 18 to 27 cases. “Every client who walks in the door probably has something more than just a need for money,” said Sylvia Meyer, who recently left the Dallas income assistance office after 11 10 SEPTEMBER 6, 1991