Saturday, January 19, 2008

A crisis brewing in investigating child abuse cases

These CPS investigators are heroes and do yeoman work for little pay and scant reward, except for the knowledge that they have helped a child. With too much frequently however, these cases end with some child being hurt or killed. No wonder these folks, particularly in Bexar County are leaving in such alarming numbers.

How can any business except possibly, a fast-food chain, survive a 75% annual turn over rate? It rapidly becomes a self-sustaining revolving door as investigators become over-worked and leave and less experienced investigators take-over their caseloads and in turn become over-worked and "burn-out"; causing their case-load to go to a less-experienced case investigator.....You get the picture.

Further exacerbating this picture, in my opinion, is that the nature of the work, bring in folks who are truly trying to literally save the world, for low pay, and who may be more sensitive to the pressures placed on them. Innovative ways need to be explored to keep these folks, think outside the box, consider extra-leave from work, recreational leave or therapeutic counseling to help these folks stay in the trenches and avoid burning out on the job.

Child abuse cases taking a toll

Nancy Martinez: Express-News

Stressed over the daily drumbeat of child death and abuse cases, 75 percent of Bexar County's Child Protective Services investigators quit last year — the highest turnover in the state.
The turnover for fiscal 2007, which ended Aug. 31, more than doubled the 36 percent of investigators who left the previous year, and CPS officials say it may have been the highest in the agency's history.

"The number of child deaths and severe abuse cases are difficult to deal with on a daily basis. It's heartbreaking when they do all they can do," said Robbie Callis, administrator over the local CPS investigation division. "Caseworkers are feeling the stress. They're carrying that home with them. They can't sleep at night."

Turnover among CPS investigators is a statewide problem, officials said, with about 41 percent of them leaving last year. Travis County had the second highest number among the state's largest counties, 48 percent; followed by Harris County with 45 percent.
Still, Bexar County is struggling more than other counties to retain investigators, and CPS officials said they don't know why.

"We wish we had the answer. If we knew it, we'd fix it," Callis said. "Program directors across the state talk about child deaths and severe abuse and all the same dynamics are there, but why the difference in the number, I don't know."

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, called Bexar's turnover number "alarming."
"We all know what that leads to — higher caseloads," he said. "How many kids are out there ... being abused and neglected that we don't know about?"

Uresti urged Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session of the Legislature to address the matter, saying, "There is no way any agency, company or entity can exist with a turnover rate of 75 percent turnover of work force. It's impossible. We're putting children at risk."

Following a mandate of the 79th Legislature, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS and other agencies, created a human resources management plan designed to improve morale and retention.

Although no progress was seen in 2007, local CPS officials said they are hopeful this year will be better. Based on the first quarter of fiscal year 2008, CPS estimates that the turnover for investigators will fall to 50 percent. The county is participating in a retention pilot program addressing the various causes of turnover.

The starting salary for a CPS investigator is $30,202, according to local officials. But pay isn't what CPS caseworkers cite when resigning. They say it is the nature of the job — the unforgiving hours and the severity of the scenes in homes they visit that make them feel helpless in their mission.

"Child abuse doesn't happen 8 to 5. It wouldn't be unheard to work a 55-hour week, to work all night on one case" Callis said. "And they have to be available 24 hours, and on a daily basis (investigators) are seeing these children's faces — their burns and injuries. All that's engraved in their minds."

CPS spokeswoman Mary Walker said there are programs that provide counseling, support and mentorship to local caseworkers, about 180 of whom investigate child abuse and neglect. The exact number of those who left the agency was not released.
CPS officials say many caseworkers quit in their first year of employment. CPS officials try to guide their expectations.

"Some people aren't truly aware of what's out there. They know that there is abuse and neglect out there, but until they see the volume of cases and what's involved — the substance abuse, mental-health issues, domestic violence, they really don't understand," said Callis, a 20-year-veteran who began as an investigator. "Caseworkers never know what's behind the door they're knocking on."