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Texas betting on lawman to fix growing child welfare crisis

FILE - In this July 8, 2016, file photo, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott responds to questions during a news conference at City Hall in Dallas. Abbott is demanding quicker action from a retired Texas Ranger he picked to take over child welfare as new figures show the state fails to check on hundreds of allegedly abused or neglected kids each day. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)
October 13, 2016 - 3:19 PM

AUSTIN, Texas - When two of the most troubled child welfare systems in the U.S. plunged into crisis, Republican governors in Texas and Arizona turned to law enforcement veterans who promised tough investigations, then saw the safety net for vulnerable kids worsen.

Arizona's Greg McKay, a onetime Phoenix detective, has survived early calls for his firing as a once-massive case backlog wanes. Now Texas' Hank Whitman, a retired Texas Ranger who actor Robert Duvall cast to play a lawman in the 2015 film "Wild Horses," is under similar pressure to turn woeful numbers around quickly.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday publicly prodded his hand-picked appointee for quicker action just seven months after selecting Whitman, who had no child welfare experience and hasn't slowed the trend of hundreds of reportedly abused kids the state is not checking on daily.

More than 200 children at risk for abuse or neglect go unseen by investigators each day around Dallas and Houston, according to state figures. About 50 kids in Texas slept in state caseworker offices in September, five times as many as the start of the year. A security guard was hired to watch over one office in Austin.

"I'm sure that's not what the governor expected," said Texas Democratic Rep. Armando Walle of Houston. "But when you have maybe somebody who doesn't have any experience in CPS, then that's a problem."

Whitman declined an interview but said in a statement this week that he appreciated Abbott's support.

But the problems go beyond leadership. Caseworkers in Texas, who start off making less than $40,000, have left in droves and passed their work onto already overwhelmed colleagues. The turnover rate among Texas caseworkers last year was 33 per cent, though state leaders are putting no immediate money on the table for raises, frustrating child-welfare experts.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praised the job Whitman was doing under the circumstances.

"That's how tough of a job it is, when you have to call in the head of the Rangers," Patrick said.

Arizona had a similar turnover rate at its child welfare agency at the end of last year, when McKay came under fire for reports showing that backlog of child abuse reports had grown to 15,000. That resulted in lawmakers issuing a rare rebuke of the agency run by McKay, who was hired in February 2015 and was previously the head of the state's Office of Child Welfare Investigations.

The backlog is now around 4,000, according to Arizona's Department of Child Safety.

Whitman took over four months after a federal judge ruled Texas' foster care system was unconstitutionally broken. He made regional directors re-apply for their jobs, said he would give nearly 150 special investigators forensic training and made criminal background checks a new priority.

"Bringing in this law enforcement, hard-knuckle, hard-nosed, we're-going-after-the-bad-guy looks like it's in the best in interest," said Will Francis, a former child caseworker in Texas who is now a lobbyist for the National Association of Social Workers. "But it completely disregards all those families that are there for neglect or aren't that type of hard criminal."

But even some of Texas' harshest critics say the issue isn't at the top, but the lack of caseworkers at the bottom.

"Custer got massacred because he didn't have enough troops," said Scott McCown, a former Texas judge and director of the Children's Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. "Whoever the general is doesn't matter."

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

News from © The Associated Press, 2016
The Associated Press

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