Following months of study, 65 committee amendments and nearly five hours of floor debate, the Senate is one step away from passing a comprehensive adult and child protective services reform bill. Following a number of accounts of children and elderly dying of neglect or abuse, Governor Rick Perry named Adult and Child Protective Services (APS/CPS) reform as an emergency issue for the 79th Legislature. Senator Jane Nelson, Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, spearheaded the reform effort, culminating in Senate Bill 6, which would make sweeping changes to the states APS/CPS system. "I can't think of any issue facing us this session that is more vital to protecting the lives of our most vulnerable Texans, our children and our elderly," said Nelson, "If we as a state can't do that job properly, then shame on us."
Senate Bill 6 seeks to reduce CPS caseloads, identified as one of the major problems facing the system, by making it a felony to maliciously report child abuse. Nelson said that CPS receives hundreds of such reports each year, which seriously impede the agency's work with legitimate abuse cases. SB 6 would also create a separate investigations department within CPS to work closely with local and state law enforcement in cases involving criminal child abuse. The bill would create a community-based intervention program to deal with lesser abuse cases in order to prevent escalation of abuse while reducing the burden on CPS caseworkers. It would encourage placement of children, who must be removed from an abusive situation, with relatives rather than foster parents. Foster programs would move toward privatization, and an amendment added today by Senator Jon Lindsay would create a pilot program to analyze the cost-effectiveness and efficacy of privatized case management.
The APS side of the bill was led by El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh, who took a special interest in APS after an elderly person in his district died from neglect despite visits from APS case workers. Provisions in SB 6 would reform guardianship protocols, making the state the guardian of last resort in order to provide some sort of caretaker for a senior should no other suitable guardian be found. It would also create a risk-assessment and investigations department within the agency to prevent further deaths from neglect.
The bill does not directly increase the number of case workers within CPS/APS, because such an increase falls under the authority of the Senate Finance committee. The bill does strongly advocate hiring more caseworkers, as Nelson says the lack of caseworkers is a critical problem facing protective services. According to Nelson, the average caseload in Texas is about 74 cases per worker, far higher than what is recommended for effective intervention. Nelson said the number of cases must be cut at least in half, though some CPS organizations recommend a number much less than that. The overload of cases also leads to high turnover for caseworkers, with the average caseworker lasting only 3 years before leaving protective services, and with 50% of caseworkers leaving after their first year.
The fiscal impact of SB 6 is not fully determined, though Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst estimated the cost of reforms at around $200 million. The bill was unanimously passed on to third reading, and will likely get final passage during session on Thursday. Nelson said she did not move for final passage today because she wants to ensure the bill gets all the necessary amendments to maximize its effectiveness. "I want to make sure we've got all the good ideas," said Nelson, "and mesh them together in a bill that will do its job of protecting our most vulnerable and saving lives."
The Senate will reconvene Thursday, March 3, at 10:00 A.M.