DALLAS — It was Donnielle Phillips’ dream job.
Akaiya Thomas saw it as a calling.
Courtney Coles wanted to help families in need.
“It's not just about taking people's children, but we actually help families," Thomas said. "We were there to fill that void."
Phillips, Thomas, and Coles were among about a dozen former CPS investigators that we spoke with who’ve departed from the agency within the last six months. We wanted to understand why they became CPS investigators and why they left.
They cite bad management and the overwhelming demands of the job. Low pay is a factor, but isn’t the main reason they left.
“I imagined myself retiring from the state one day in investigations,” Phillips said. “But I don’t see that now. I don’t see it. It was just too much stress. It was very overwhelming. I didn’t have a personal life.”
Last February, News 8 interviewed Commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services John Specia, the former family court judge brought in to transform the troubled agency. He was heading up a back-to-basics overhaul, seeking to change a “crisis culture” and trying to fix its biggest problem: its inability to keep its workforce.
Specia said then that he believed the agency was well on its way to achieving transformation.
Then came the recent CPS crisis in Dallas County with a turnover rate surging to 56 percent in the first quarter of 2016, double what it had been two years before. That, in turn, caused a spike in caseloads. As caseloads soared, more and more workers and supervisors quit.
Half of the 160 investigator spots were vacant until recently.
The March death of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright put a face on what can happen in that chaos. She was beaten, tortured and force-fed amid a litany of missteps by CPS workers assigned to protect her.
At the time she died, the caseworker assigned to her was juggling 70 cases – far above the recommended caseload of 12.
Soon Specia was out and replaced by Hank Whitman, a former chief of the Texas Rangers. State leaders are yet again promising to fix a broken system.
“I think a lot of people think they can just come in and fix it, like the problems we're having are problems we created and this can be easily resolved,” Thomas said. “This is not something that's going to be resolved in a few quick action items or a few months. There are deep rooted issues that are systematic that come from the top and push all the way to the bottom."
Nothing is typical about the day of a CPS investigator.
There's the endless documentation required for the job. The constant phones calls coming at all hours of the day and night. There are the many miles they put on their cars. There's the bureaucratic maze of constantly changing policies, unrealistic policies and some that just aren’t consistent.
“I think the agency sets up their workers for failure every day,” says Coles, who worked in Tarrant County’s CPS. “There's so many obstacles to getting your job done.”
If anything, Dallas County is a case study in just how hard “overhauling” CPS will be.
A recent management report indicates there was a brewing crisis dating back to at least 2011. Upper management was well aware of it and did little to prevent the onset of last year’s full-blown crisis.
Phillips and Thomas lived the reality outlined in the report that described Dallas County CPS on a "downward spiral" of "negative culture, increased workload, and increased negativity" all with no "apparent urgency on the part of upper management."
“I remember being in a meeting and I called it a crisis and they were like ‘whoa, whoa’ don't call it that,” Thomas said. “It's like trauma. We're out here with no help. It's like we're out here losing people wand we're losing people. This is a crisis.”
And that, the former caseworkers say, put kids in danger.
“For every case that had no attention a child is in danger,” Thomas said.
George Cannata, the new regional director for the area that includes Dallas County, readily acknowledged that there was a “leadership crisis” in Dallas County as outlined by the management report.
“There are reasons why caseworkers stay and there are reasons why caseworkers leave and the common factor is the supervisor,” Cannata said. “We had a lot of holes in the leadership team and when you have that, it’s no surprise that we’re going to see morale going down and that you’re going to see retention become a big problem.”
He recently brought two new program administrators – managers who will report directly to him – on board. He is also replenishing the other supervisory ranks.
Ninety-five investigators will soon complete training and will be reporting to Dallas County. About 30 of them start in Dallas County this week.
“Help is on the way,” says Cannata who started as CPS worker in Tarrant Couty.
Still, the current average caseload for Dallas County investigators is 28. The highest caseload even now is in the 80s.
Delinquency rates are still way too high.
According to the most recently available statistics, 46 percent of CPS cases were delinquent in Dallas County, meaning they’d been open for 60 days or more. That typically means there are few or no visits to the children being monitored. The average for the region was 32 percent.
Phillips and Thomas trace the descent into complete crisis to the March 2015 arrival of Stacey Reynolds, a new program administrator. Reynolds ordered that caseworkers be assigned to cases all over the Dallas County. Previously, the county had been divided up into quadrants.
Workers told her it wasn’t working. She didn’t listen, they say.
“I’m not superwoman," Thomas said. "I don’t have a personal helicopter. She allowed it to continue on a downward spiral when she knew things were bad and instead of reaching out to help, she allowed us to just drown in cases.”
The report also cited a “punitive culture that breeds crisis.”
Thomas and Phillips lived the reality of that too.
“Here you are busting your butt and working all night … and there would be threats, these threats that if you didn’t do this particular action then you may be terminated,” Thomas said.
Thomas recalls her caseload hitting 60.
“I made a decision early on when things were becoming very chaotic that you can’t close cases and see children when you get this many cases coming in,” Thomas said. “We were getting in excess of nine, 10, sometimes 12 cases a week.”
She made seeing the children on her caseload the paramount priority.
“I spent all day in my car driving to make sure that these children are alive, that they’re well and that they’re safe,” Thomas said. “And in any instances where they weren’t, I made plans to make sure that they would be safe by the end of the day.”
Phillips and Thomas describe a work situation that all too often put kids in danger.
“There were times I would be out on sick leave and I would still be assigned a case. So I’m thinking to myself, 'If I’m out sick and this is a priority one case, what do you expect me to do?'” Phillips said. “If it’s such a concern, don’t you think you have to give it to another caseworker to go out on it?”
As chaos descended, CPS dispatched eight master investigators and three master investigation supervisors to help last August. Those numbers eventually grew to 24 master investigators and supervisors. Workers are still coming in from across the region to help Dallas County.
Thomas says she got help from the master investigators but there just wasn’t enough of them to stem the tide.
For months, they went without a supervisor at their Westmoreland office.
Phillips says she was on family medical leave for several weeks last year. When she returned, her cases hadn't been touched.
“They were so concerned about child safety but yet these cases sat for a month and half and no one touched them — follow up, no phone calls, no anything,” Phillips says.
The pressure took its toll.
Phillips says she began seeing a counselor last year. She was prescribed sleeping medications because she was having trouble sleeping at night.
“You would think they would be a little more understanding but you don’t have those supervisors that are understanding like that,” Phillips says. “They don’t care.”
When caseworker have a difficult case, there’s just no downtime to regroup or an offer of support from the agency.
“It’s just OK, here’s your case for tomorrow,” Coles says. “It just never ends.”
They see the decision to fire the caseworker and supervisor in the Wright case as scapegoating by a system that failed the little girl and its own workers.
“That's just poor management,” Thomas said. “How do you allow your worker to have 70 cases? He can’t function with this many cases, even if he was the greatest supervisor ever. It’s too many.”
The caseworker, Claudell Banks, was fired, as was his supervisor, Amber Davila. A special investigator also quit in the fallout.
Phillips worked for Davila.
She calls Davila “one of the greatest supervisors” she ever had during her two and half years with CPS.
“She really was working on my behalf,” Phillips said. “Never once did she say, 'If you don’t get this done, then these are the consequences for your actions.' Instead, she actually helped me.”
Reynolds was also removed from her job as program administrator. Starting Monday, she assumed a new role as risk manager, a non-supervisory position that reviews cases and assists staff members with policy compliance, a CPS spokeswoman said.
Phillips’ tipping point that led to her departure came when she had to spend two weekends in a row staying in the office with children.
The second time, she’d only been home a few hours sleeping when a supervisor called saying they had found a placement for the children in Austin. The supervisor demanded she report to the office and drive the children to Austin.
“I was exhausted, very exhausted.” Phillips said. “You can’t make safety decisions when you’re mentally exhausted and your body is exhausted. At some point, you have to sleep.”
Her last day was May 13. She left without even having a job lined up.
It was either her job or her health, she said.
She says the situation with Dallas County CPS just hadn’t gotten any better, mirroring a finding in the management report that there hadn’t been much “progress.” Phillips was getting assigned cases even after turning in her two weeks.
“When you’re still giving me new investigations and you know that I’m leaving, what does that say for the families?” Phillips said.
Leaving was the best decision she ever made, Phillips says.
“No more 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning calls. No more staying at the office overnight,” she says. “No more taking sleeping pills at night.”
She hasn't taken a sleeping pill since leaving.
Cannata, the new regional director, says he’s hoping to convince workers like Phillips to return and give the agency another chance.
“It is getting better,” he said. “It is not where we need to be. We still have caseloads that are high. We also have caseloads that are a lot lower than they were.”
September 3, 2015 was the day that Thomas decided to call it quits.
She was working a case with a 7-year-old child and a 2-month old infant.
She had met with the family and found a suitable family member willing to take the children.
Thomas says a supervisor decided without even seeing the children that the children should instead be removed and placed in foster care. Thomas was practically speechless.
“I had met with this family,” Thomas said. “I had seen this child, both at home and at school. She was doing very well in school. She had a very good relationship with her mom. She had a new baby brother that she was crazy about. In that instant, I had to tell them that all work that we’ve worked through to find an appropriate caregiver, no, the children need to go into foster care. In that moment, the seven year old stood up and looked at her mom and said, ‘You’re going to let her take me away from her.' The mom losses it. The infant starts crying.”
Thomas had to call her own parents and ask them to take care of her own 7-year-old daughter.
“I said, 'I’m not going to be home anytime soon,’’’ Thomas said. “My mom, she’s upset. She says, ‘Akaiya, you really should quit this job. It’s just too much. You have a kid.' And I was like, ‘I know. Tell my daughter I love her and I’ll see her a little bit and a little bit didn’t come. It was all night. Overnight.’”
Thomas spent the night in a CPS office with the two children. The infant cried for much of the night. The supervisor, who had overruled her plan, didn’t offer any assistance.
Caseworkers describe being forced to neglect their own children, their own family.
“They have to choose their job over their children,” Thomas said. “You can’t just get up in the middle of a case and say, ‘Oh, it’s past 5 o’clock, I have go get my daughter.”
Thomas says her daughter had gotten used to her coming home and still having to work just to keep up. When she told her daughter she was quitting, she says her daughter celebrated. Thomas now works in a corporate job.
The former caseworkers are critical of the recent decision by the new head of CPS to hire workers without a four-year degree. They say it’s necessary for workers to have the social work training to do the job.
“It’s just a way for them to save money because they don’t want to raise what they’re paying so, ‘Hey, we can bring in people with less education, lower the standards, and we can pay them what these other workers don’t want,'” Thomas said.
Thomas wrote a seven-page letter when she decided to leave.
Asked if she got a response, she says, “No one responded. Not one response.”
“We’ve been in transformation for two years and it’s just gotten worse,” Thomas said.