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To Help Improve Lives Of Foster Kids, Texas' Child Welfare Agency Commits To Smaller Caseloads

The facade of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services
Julia Reihs

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is rolling out new internal guidelines this week to reduce the caseloads of frontline staff who work with children in the foster care system.

“This is huge. I don’t think the size of this impact can be minimized. It is really, really big,” said Will Francis, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, Texas Chapter.

The introduction of the new standards was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

At minimum, Francis said, caseworkers with child protective services work 50-hour weeks to build trust with kids, develop unique plans for them and talk to others related to their cases.

“All of those things take time,” he said, “and the bigger your caseload, the less you can do.”

Francis said when caseworkers are responsible for too many kids, they need to cut corners.

“Maybe you don’t talk to the therapist as much as you should,” he said. “Maybe you don’t have time to find a relative who could be a good placement. Maybe you’re just not answering your phone because you’re dealing with another emergency.”

Patrick Crimmins, a spokesperson for DFPS, said the new standards will aim to ensure conservatorship caseworkers and child abuse investigators handle only between 14 and 17 foster children at a time.

The figures were worked out as part of a deal between lawyers for the state and lawyers for the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that found long-term foster care in Texas unconstitutional. When the lawsuit was filed in 2011, the average daily caseload was about double the new targets.

U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack signed off on the agreement Dec. 17. It replaces an order to conduct workload studies that would have helped determine the ideal number of children caseworkers should assist.

“These agreed guidelines are consistent with the Court’s order, as they will save the cost and avoid the delay of workload studies and speed the implementation of improvements to benefit children in the custody of the Texas foster care system,” Jack wrote in her order.

Kate Murphy, the senior child welfare policy associate with Texans Care for Children, said lower caseloads will improve the safety of foster children, which is something her group has been pushing for for years.

“When Texas removes kids from unsafe homes and puts them in foster care, the kids often face a number of challenges,” she said, “but when CPS foster care caseworkers have time to focus on each individual child, they’re going to be able to make sure the kids in foster care have a more positive experience.”

While the new guidelines are a significant step forward, Murphy said, DFPS still faces barriers to reducing caseloads.

“We are really eager to see what the DFPS strategy is going to be,” she said.

Murphy points out that, among conservatorship caseworkers alone, the average workload decreased to 26 in fiscal year 2018, which is lower than when the lawsuit was filed.

“Almost all Texas counties are still above that newly agreed upon range,” she said.

Based on Murphy's analysis of DFPS data from fiscal year 2018, only 10 counties would meet the new guidelines of 14 to 17 children per conservatorship caseworker. 

Crimmins disputes Murphy's analysis of the state data – especially on the county level. He says a statewide analysis paints a more accurate picture, pointing out that in the last two months of 2019 the average workload for conservatorship caseworkers statewide was just over 17 children, which is just over the court-ordered caseload guideline.

Still, Murphy said she hopes the Legislature will invest in reducing caseloads during its next session in 2021.

“I think the success of DFPS in achieving those guidelines and meeting that target range is going to depend on the support they get,” she said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to better reflect DFPS data regarding workloads. The update also addressed discrepancies between DFPS and Texans Care for Children's analyses.

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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