AUSTIN (KXAN) — Inside a state office building one day in late May, a child threatened to get a gun and hold it to a worker’s head, according to state incident records.
Another report obtained by KXAN investigators reveals a few weeks before that, a young person at a Child Protective Services office in Austin “grabbed a worker’s bottom.” Just a few weeks ago, at a CPS office in Bastrop, a child “repeatedly punched a worker in the face, head and stomach and pulled the worker’s hair.”
One incident report details what happened when caseworkers took a child in their care to a park outside of Dallas: the child tried walking toward a busy highway, before hitting a worker with a tree limb and slapping them in the face.
These are just some of the dozens of physical altercations or sexual advances made on Department of Family and Protective Services workers by children living in state offices, hotels and other temporary locations.
DFPS has acknowledged the increase in children living in these types of locations — a result of what’s become known as Texas’ foster care “capacity crisis.” On Thursday, a spokesperson for the agency said the situation had “worsened dramatically” this year, with the loss of more than 1,000 available beds for children.
“Because there are so many more children and youth without placements, these locations are becoming more crowded. None of these facilities – especially of course CPS offices – are designed as sleeping quarters for young people, most of whom need treatment of various types,” the spokesperson said. “Obviously, our workers are in harm’s way and we are very focused on making these locations safer.”
The incident records obtained by KXAN detail just one incident in 2018 across the whole state. Then, there were eight incidents recorded in 2019 and nine in 2020. So far in 2021, DFPS has already recorded 59 incidents between workers and these children.
Six of those incidents involved kids staying in Central Texas CPS offices.
Carrie Ward, a child welfare attorney, reached out to KXAN after connecting with five different workers who said they were distraught and concerned about the number of these Children Without Placement (also known as CWOP).
“Having to respond to a crisis here and there is one thing, but having to do a four-hour shift on a Saturday night?” she said. “It’s a huge toll on these caseworkers. If we are not losing them already, we will.”
However, DFPS data revealed a 17% percent turnover rate for their workforce — lower than last year when the turnover rate was more than 20%.
The spokesperson for the agency said, “What’s most important is the safety of these children and young people in the State’s care, and that they get the treatment they need. We are also extremely focused on our staff, who selflessly provide care for these children 24 hours a day.”
Seanna Crosbie, Chief Strategy and Program Officer at Austin Child Guidance Center, emphasized the importance of personal mental-health support and specialized training for these workers.
“Child welfare workers are human beings, too,” she said.
Experts at the Center offer mental health services, particularly for young people. Some of their staff work with children in the foster care system who have experienced abuse, neglect, or the trauma of being removed from their home.
Crosbie said it’s important for any adult to approach these children with “curiosity,” and not from a place of “compliance.” She also explained the importance of maintaining consistency and building relationships of trust for these children.
“At the core of a child is their sense of safety. Having a sense of routine, knowing where they are going to be living and who they are going to be living with is really, really, really important,” she said. “The brain is functioning from a place of fear and protection. Sometimes kids will be acting out from a place of genuinely trying to protect themselves.”
In 2013, leaders at the Austin Child Guidance Center established the Trauma Informed Care Consortium of Central Texas, bringing together more than 100 professional organizations and agencies. The consortium of mental health clinicians and medical personnel to school personnel, law enforcement, and juvenile justice professionals meets several times a year. They also offer trauma-informed care training.
“That being said, this work is ever evolving,” Crosbie said.
Kate Murphy, Senior Policy Associate with Texans Care for Children, told KXAN the state legislature passed several measures to help ease the capacity crisis. One piece of legislation signed by Governor Greg Abbott actually prohibits kids from sleeping in CPS offices, but Murphy said they will be watching closely to see how that’s implemented.
Her group was concerned about two proposed amendments: one to increase punishments for assaulting CPS caseworkers and another to penalize kids for refusing a placement. Both of those efforts ultimately failed.
“It really makes children bear the brunt of the systems’ failures,” she said. “The focus should be on, how do we change the system to support these kids rather than, how do we punish these kids for what may very well have been a trauma response.”
In a meeting last month, the Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner, Jamie Masters, told members of the DFPS council they recognized the effect these physical altercations had on other kids in CWOP.
“It’s a heavy thing to try to figure out the right answer and the right approach,” Masters said.
A spokesperson for DFPS echoed the sentiment, when KXAN asked about the physical altercations and incidents.
“There is no one-size fits all approach, and DFPS is just one part of a large and complex child welfare system. We must work closely with our private providers to innovate and find new, creative solutions to this problem. We are quickly working with our partner providers and other child welfare stakeholders to meet this very difficult challenge. We have already identified alternatives, and work will not stop until we have real solutions.”