Since World War II, Americans have always shared a common belief that government is by and for people, and that government has a good and essential role to play in all our lives.
From Social Security to public schools, from the GI bill to CHIP, Americans believed that government is “us,” all of us pulling together doing those jobs, which each of us alone could not do, doing those jobs that made us admired by every country, every individual in the world.
Not any more—basic trust in America’s government is now under attack, and not from the outside, but from within.
A leader in the attack on responsible governance, Grover Norquist famously stated his goal was to “cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
For a quarter century, since the day Rick Perry first entered the Texas House, Norquist’s vision has had its way with Texas. The first part of that vision is tax cuts for the very wealthy—the top one percent whose household income averaged $1,558,500 in 2005. The second piece is budget cuts for most American families. And the natural result is failed government.
Another way to capture the Norquist philosophy is with one word: irresponsibility. More than any other value influencing government today, Grover’s hostility to “responsible governance” explains the failed leadership in agency after agency from Texas to D.C.
In Texas, Government by Grover has had dramatic consequences. One example is the agency created to care for our most vulnerable children—Child Protective Services. The agency first came under scrutiny in 2004 after a number of children, who were in the custody of the state, died.
In 2008, in El Paso, a child hanged herself with a jump rope at a local day care—a day care that still had its license although the owner had been cited twice during the past year for neglectful supervision of infants and toddlers in her care.
In June 2008, a 21-month old child living near Austin was beaten to death by his parents. CPS had returned the child at the end of last year to the parents after they completed a counseling program.
In testimony provided to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on April 30, 2008, Madeline McClure, a respected expert who has devoted over ten years of her life to advocate for children’s care issues, bluntly stated, “The safety, permanency and stability for children and families involved with CPS is contingent upon the quality, permanency and stability of the CPS workforce.” After ten years of Norquist in Texas, CPS is a case study in failed government.
Caseworkers in Texas have the highest caseloads in the United States. In fact, our CPS conservatorship caseworkers’ average caseload is 43.3 three times the 15 caseload average recommended by the Child Welfare League of America and more than twice the national average of 18.9.
To make matters worse, Texas pays its caseworkers one of the lowest salaries for child protective caseworkers in America—on average, under $31,000 per year. In 2005-06, Texas ranked 48th in the nation for a CPS caseworker’s average salary. Notably, CPS caseworkers in New Mexico earn about $10,000 more a year than CPS caseworkers in Texas.
The quality of supervision of caseworkers in Texas is also abysmally low. With the high workload, low pay, and stressful working conditions, it is not surprising that the overall turnover rate for all CPS caseworkers in FY 2008 was 30.5 percent, even worse for “front line” investigators at 36.1 percent.
So, what happens when someone tries to act responsibly to help our abused and neglected children? What happens in Texas when our children get caught in Grover’s tub?
During the 80th legislative session, our office proposed Amendment 4 to S.B. 758 to require 100 percent monthly visits—caseworkers would have been required to visit each of their assigned children at least once a month. This amendment would have significantly reduced the caseworker to case ratio. And more importantly, the requirement would have increased the safety and well being of children in the custody of the State, to conform with federal laws.
The amendment was voted down 20 to 11. The $17.8 million to pay for new caseworkers to reduce caseloads, increase monthly investigations and ensure the safety of Texas children did not make the budget.
So what happened? In April 2008, the Administration for Children and Families, which is a component of the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, fined the state of Texas $4 million for not visiting the children often enough. Federal policy requires that at least 95 percent of children in the care of the state are visited once a month.
During this most recent legislative session, we offered the same amendment again, and tagged it onto Senate Bill 69 after a floor fight about the $4 million fine. That amendment gets us to the federal minimum standard of 95 percent monthly visitation.
Recent reports ranked Texas 45th when it comes to child abuse fatalities. Why is it so hard to care for kids in Texas? Here’s why—under government by Grover, tax cuts for the wealthy trump the care of vulnerable kids. By voting down our amendment for two years, some in the Senate made clear their values: “we’re willing to pay fines, but not willing to pay for care.”
Failed values mean failed leadership, which results in failure on many levels, but none so tragic as our failure to take care of the most vulnerable among us, our children. Thousands of Texas children are now at risk.
So, what can we do? What can you do? As Abraham Lincoln once said, ultimately government is "of the people, by the people and for the people.”
If you want care for kids, if you want a CPS that has trained and motivated staff who investigate hard cases, if you want to ensure that more children do not die from abuse, then get involved.
Call CPS and demand the facts. Here’s the number: 512-438-4800. Find out about caseloads in your region. Volunteer to help kids through CASA. Visit Texas Legislature Online at www.legis.state.tx.us/ and find out how your Senator or State Representative voted on children’s legislation and let them know how you feel about the result.
Send a message loud and clear—"Don’t mess with Texas children!"