• Texas Family Project

Social Services Insider Shares Frustration but has Hope

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

by Ally Z., Contributor

Texas Family Project

It was a warm Texas Friday and I was in a coffee shop, sipping a chai tea, waiting for Jaime Jaco-Cooper. I’d never met her, but my editor set up this meeting and ensured me we’d have a lot to talk about. Jaco-Cooper is on the Board of Directors for Texas Family Project and worked for years under the Child Protective Services umbrella in the Texas Social Services system.

I was reviewing my questions I jotted down beforehand as she walked in. I immediately recognized her from her Facebook photo and waved her over. After a friendly introduction, I began with some basics to break the ice.

What did she do in the Texas social services system? She told me she worked as an Investigator for Child Protective Services in Tarrant County for 3 years. She described the department’s mission to protect and serve those who are vulnerable and cannot protect themselves.

It’s a lofty mission to say the least, so I wanted to get down to what it really meant. Specifically, what aspects of social services/CPS need change?

Jaco-Cooper got straight to the point. “Caseworkers need higher pay,” she said.

“Working right out of college in 2006, I made about $30,000 a year. In the private sector, working with a degree can earn you $35,000-40,000 fresh out of school. This is a tough job that requires over 60 hours a week. It is hard emotionally, mentally, and physically. We were on call 24/7/365. Caseworkers are asked to go into potentially dangerous situations daily. They make important decisions that affect people’s whole lives. All this and because of the low pay, turnover is very high. Therefore, those who stick around are stuck with very high caseloads,” she said.

I could hear the deep frustration in her voice. Even years after leaving the department, she is still discontented. And it’s no wonder. Texas ranks poorly relative to other states in social service workers’ pay, and because of this, the state suffers from an 18.6 percent turnover rate.

Jaco-Cooper explained she wants to see more resources for victims of domestic violence; more than half of her cases dealt with it. As an investigator, Jaco-Cooper had no resources for these victims other than outsourcing them to shelters.

She also emphasized the lack of resources for those struggling with mental illness.

“In Tarrant County, MHMR is it,” Jaco-Cooper said, looking dejected. Mental Health Mental Retardation (MHMR) of Tarrant County is a local governmental agency serving those requiring mental health services, intellectual and developmental disabilities and addiction services, the homeless, and much more.

Tarrant is one of the busiest counties in the state for social services. Needless to say, there are big roles to fill—far too many for just one agency to manage without proper funding and resources.

“Because there are not a lot of resources for CPS, they had to rely on help from non-profits. They should have the funds for drug and alcohol counseling, parenting classes, child development classes, etc. Many of these nonprofits are tied to religious groups which means all the resources are tied to religion.”

Jaco-Cooper seemed frustrated by how heavily Texas relies on religious groups to do the work that many assume is done by the state. This reliance becomes more evident when the legislature’s indifference is considered. This commingling of religious and state resources also causes problems for Texas families and children seeking home placements.

Jaco-Cooper unpacked some unsettling legislation that contributes to this problem, such as S.B.11. The 2017 Texas Senate bill has assigned the Department of Family and Protective Services a new community-based care program, and expects it to be fully-finished by the end of 2019.

Child welfare advocates have voiced concern about “contracted organizations in the program taking over case management duties from the state.” These are tasks vital to success in child welfare and include “overseeing caseworker visits, creating permanency plans for children and making sure children and their families are receiving services.” These services cannot be overlooked if Texas wants to improve its rating, as Republican Governor Greg Abbott desires. Spokespeople for children’s causes are concerned about the lack of resources, both financial and staffing, for the community-based initiative.

While these are valid concerns, there is a much deeper element to this bill’s intent: the systematic privatization of the foster care system.

Most non-profit agencies in foster care are religious, predominantly Christian, with a large population of white foster parents waiting to take in children. This is significant because the majority of children in the system aren’t white. In June 2018, 16,995 children were placed in foster care. Of those, 10,575 were African-American or Hispanic.

Jaco-Cooper, a Unitarian, said friends in her church were financially stable and wanted to give back to their community by becoming foster parents. But their applications were denied by non-profit agencies because they were “not religious enough, or Catholic”. Typically, government agencies would never be able to mask this kind of blatant discrimination; however, it’s legal for private groups in Texas under the premise of religious freedom.

Jaco-Cooper believes placements are the most pertinent issue facing child welfare within the foster system today. “When a child is removed from the home, they need a safe place to go.”

When asked for solutions, she had many.

“Finding more foster parents, not discriminating against foster parents based on religion, sexual orientation, marital status, and more support for foster parents—emotional and financial,” she said.

She also added the importance of education for kinship care. “Child care classes are vital to new parents, whether they plan for a newborn or foster a child from an abusive environment. There should be no discrimination on the resources available to guardians based on the circumstances of the child. We need drug treatment centers where children can still be with their parents while they get help, more domestic violence shelters where women can bring their families, find jobs, and get resources, and more resources for those with mental illness. If we’re helping the parents, we’re helping the child.”

The Texas legislature attempted to address this in the 2017 session. H.B. 7 gives parents more access to the child welfare agency's evidence about allegations against them; prevents courts from terminating parent-child relationships without evidence; and, stops courts from ordering medical or mental health treatment for a child before consulting a healthcare professional.

Texas passed H.B. 4 in the 2017 session. Charged with the economic responsibility of child care, the bill “allocates about $350 a month to families caring for abused and neglected children who are related to them,” an amount that seems like it would barely cover life necessities such as food, clothing, and potential medical expenses.

While this is a step to advance resources for child care, Jaco-Cooper reminded me of the reality facing a majority of those caring for abused and neglected children.

“Most of these kids go to other family members and grandparents when they get removed,” she said. “The grandparents may be on fixed incomes.”

By this, she means pensions or Social Security benefits. With a Texas Social Security check averaging $1,375.08 a month, these incomes are not enough to support a child.

Before the bill was passed, there was no guaranteed state aid to kinship care, making these few hundred dollars a month a lifeline for guardians. H.B. 5 gives the Department of Family and Protective Services “full authority” on issues of adoption, abuse and neglect investigations, placements, and many more. This legislation also ”re-establishes the Family and Protective Services Council to help make rules and policies for the department,” hopefully further reducing the rates of burnout among welfare employees.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R-Houston) publicly supports the current foster care movement, and says he aspires to expand it.

“My goal is to promote this faith-based initiative and motivate more families across Texas to open their homes and their hearts to a child in need,” Patrick said on his website.

While the rhetoric reads with saccharinity, there is evidence-backed concern that this masks an organized pressure for children of color and non-Christian faiths to model their majority white, Christian guardians.

Recently, Governor Greg Abbott also weighed in on the future of Texas Social Services. “I expect the Texas Child Protective Services and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to strive for, achieve and to accomplish No. 1 ranking status in the United States of America as it concerns taking care of our children.”

Abbott said this during a bill signing of legislation intended to address major issues affecting child welfare. It’s unlikely, given the nature of these bills, that children will soon see a foster system that is inclusive and effective without better funding and more support from secular government agencies.

This legislative overhaul is a response to diverse criticism of Texas’ child welfare system. Four bills were produced to begin the long and arduous fight for young people in less than ideal circumstances. KIDSCOUNT, a research effort of the Annie E. Casey foundation, ranks Texas 43rd in overall child welfare. The foundation tracks the well-being of children across the United States.

“We need to put children first,” Jaco-Cooper explained. “Sometimes when I hear people talking about policies and funding, I just want to scream ‘These are children!’ Imagine being a child and not feeling safe at home. Imagine loving a parent who neglects or abuses you. Imagine being torn from your home and community and placed in foster care, starting a new school, and not knowing anyone. And then, getting passed around from foster home to foster home. A person’s childhood can affect the rest of their lives. It can determine whether someone becomes a productive member of society or not. I just want people to have some compassion.”

Volunteers and community groups who are committed to the well-being of Texas children are now pushing harder than ever to improve the lives of our most vulnerable. Speaking with such a compassionate advocate for child survivors of unimaginable trauma has truly opened my eyes to the changes that are necessary. With the continued support from these defenders of young people, the Texas legislature can make life-changing, even life-saving, impacts. With the 2019 session just a few months away, the stakes are high to see whether these bills will have any measured effects.

But we have to make sure the right representatives are there to work for a better future. Only by electing compassionate leaders who are willing to put children first can we hope to make positive change in the Social Services system and improve the lives of so many of our most vulnerable young Texans.

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