April 12, 2016  |  Statewide

Texas CPS’ parent agency gets new leaders as Gov. Abbott promises overhaul

AUSTIN — (DALLAS MORNING NEWS) Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration has turned to the former head of the fabled law enforcement agency the Texas Rangers and one of his former child-support managers at the attorney general’s office to run Texas’ troubled protective services agency.

On Monday, retired Rangers Chief Henry “Hank” Whitman was tapped to be commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, parent agency of Child Protective Services.

Abbott’s social services czar, Chris Traylor, also appointed Kristene Blackstone to run CPS as an assistant commissioner at the department.

“The status quo at CPS is unacceptable,” Abbott said in a written statement. “Our children are too important to suffer through the challenges they’ve faced. I’ve insisted on overhauling a broken system, and I applaud the leadership changes that will provide a new direction and focus that puts protecting children first.”

Henry "Hank" Whitman, former head of the Texas Rangers, is the state's new protective services chief. (LinkedIn photo)

Henry “Hank” Whitman, former head of the Texas Rangers, is the state’s new protective services chief. (LinkedIn)

For days, Abbott, Traylor and Charles Smith, Traylor’s top deputy at the Health and Human Services Commission, have been working to respond to swift-moving events, such as a mass exodus of child-abuse investigators from CPS’ Dallas County operation, the death of a Grand Prairie child known to be at risk and setbacks for the state in a sweeping, federal foster care lawsuit.

“I can’t think of anyone better than a Texas Ranger to protect our most vulnerable Texans,” Traylor said in a written statement. “Chief Whitman is no stranger to critical assignments that keep us safe and I know he will bring the same diligence to [the protective services department] that has always driven the Rangers.”

However, many CPS workers have questioned whether law enforcement and social work are a good mix. A 2005 legislative overhaul, which created a new class of “special investigators” who were former cops, continues to irritate many frontline caseworkers. The special investigators, who are supposed to prevent any errors in evidence-gathering that could complicate potential criminal cases, have higher pay.

On March 31, Melissa Moffitt, the agency’s deputy regional director for North Texas, sent employees an email in which she noted that Smith had asked area CPS officials to rethink the traditional setup for child abuse investigations.

“Mr. Smith had an idea that we could look at a law enforcement model where we have a ‘first responder’ make initial contacts on a case, much like the position a patrol officer does,” and cases are then handed off to specialists the way cops hand them off to burglary, narcotics or homicide detectives, she wrote. Moffitt’s email prompted a flurry of complaints by workers and supervisors to The Dallas Morning News.

Whitman and Blackstone will start their new jobs May 1. Whitman, who spent 22 years with the Department of Public Safety, lives in Floresville and has been helping run a private investigations firm since he retired from the Rangers in 2012. Blackstone spent 17 years with CPS before jumping to child support.

“I’m honored to be given this sacred trust,” Whitman said in a written statement. “We’ve got Texas’ future in our hands and everything we do will focus on making sure these kids have their chance to shine.”

Kristene Blackstone starts May 1 as assistant protective services commissioner over CPS. (Matt Block, Texas OAG photo)

Kristene Blackstone starts May 1 as Texas’ assistant protective services commissioner over CPS. (Matt Block, Texas OAG photo on Flickr)

Whitman and other managers he selects “will look to overhaul the operations of CPS,” Traylor said. “They will rebuild structures that are failing and improve the systems that are working. Whitman’s strength as an investigator will help the caseworkers on the front lines evaluate the critical cases involving Texas children.”

Whitman replaces John Specia, a former San Antonio family court judge, who is retiring.

Blackstone, who is deputy director for field operations at the child support division, has worked as a CPS caseworker, supervisor, program director and program administrator. She succeeds Lisa Black, who retired in February.

Over the weekend, the problems with Texas protective services drew intense interest on social media.

On Sunday, Abbott responded to a tweet by a woman who identified herself as Kathie Waldron.

She wrote, “What are your plans to help fix our broken CPS & Foster care system in Texas?”

“Overhaul,” Abbott replied.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie

Several lawmakers joined the fray, tweeting that it’s urgent that CPS make changes soon, especially after the brutal beating death of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright of Grand Prairie.

“Incomprehensible failure of Govt,” tweeted Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat whose district includes Grand Prairie.

In an interview Monday, Turner said he was disturbed to read in The Dallas Morning News that Claudell Banks, the caseworker assigned to Leiliana’s case, had 70 cases on his desk.

“The caseworker had 70 cases, and obviously that’s just absolutely unsustainable,” Turner said.

Turner said he believes Abbott should either implement administrative changes to increase pay and training for caseworkers, among other measures, or he should call legislators to Austin to give them a chance to make changes and pour more money into child welfare agencies.

“Special sessions are for emergency issues,” Turner said. “If there was ever an emergency in Texas government, this is it.

State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano (Andy Jacobsohn/Staff photo)

State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano

“Bottom line: This should absolutely not wait until 2017.”

Spokesmen for Abbott have declined to say whether he’s considering a special session on child welfare or to say precisely what his “overhaul” plans are. Abbott has shown he’s reluctant to call lawmakers back before their regular session begins in January.

Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, noted that the Legislature last year added $38 million to the protective services department’s budget.

“If funding is one of the biggest problems, then yeah, we need to look at that,” he said in an interview. On Sunday, Leach retweeted Turner’s remark about government failure.

“Time for all of us in the #txlege to band together to fix this. These children cannot wait & they shouldn’t have to,” Leach said.

He said Monday that he wants “a systemic review” of CPS and believes Abbott’s aides are conducting one.

“I will trust the governor to make the best decision when it comes to what specifically needs to be done, and if the Legislature needs to act before next session, then we’ll act accordingly,” Leach said.

The department’s also struggling with what to do with older children with more complex problems whom CPS has removed from their birth families. Last month, I wrote this story about the state’s capacity crunch in foster care, which has forced it to resume having children sleep in CPS offices.

Staff writers J. David McSwane and Tom Benning contributed to this report.