- Associated Press - Friday, December 2, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Top Republican leaders have approved nearly $150 million in emergency funding to hire 800 new workers at a troubled Texas agency facing huge case backlogs in its effort to protect abused and neglected children.

Under terms of the plan promoted by Texas Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman, the accelerated hiring of the additional workers could begin as soon as Friday. Whitman had originally proposed to begin bolstering the agency’s staff a day earlier, but was waiting on funding approval.

More staff should help ease caseloads at Texas Child Protective Services, which has for years been plagued by high turnover and low morale among workers overwhelmed by rising numbers of children at risk statewide.

Also under the plan, about 6,000 caseworkers would receive a pay raise of $12,000, and approximately 1,100 managers and others would see salary increases as well. The nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board said in a letter to Whitman that it was approving $142.5 million for the moves through the end of fiscal year 2017, but also setting a series of benchmarks the agency must meet as part of the process.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that Texas’ foster care system - which has about 30,000 children in homes and institutional settings - is “broken, and it has been that way for decades.”

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in April tapped Whitman, a former head of the Texas Rangers, to shake up Child Protective Services. But there has since been little progress in reducing the scores of allegedly abused or neglected kids who welfare investigators are failing to visit in a timely fashion - meaning the state is effectively breaking its own rules.

Around 50 kids pulled from homes considered dangerous also slept in state offices, motels or emergency shelters in August and September, a roughly fivefold increase since February, according to state figures.

In a statement Friday, Whitman said he was “very grateful for the continued strong support of CPS from Gov. Abbott and the Legislature.”

“This will improve our capability to protect Texas children,” he said.

The agency said it is constantly hiring caseworkers due to high turnover but that the funding would allow it to step up those efforts. A preliminary plan calls for hiring 100 special investigators between this month and next. They will be assigned to the Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and Austin areas.

Around 55 investigative caseworkers also should be hired this month, and will immediately begin a three-month training period. Additional training will also be needed for about 30 new family-based safety services workers that the agency plans to hire in December, and about 20 foster care workers it plans to hire this month and next.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Texas Senate, said in a statement released with a group of GOP senators that while approving the emergency funding “we have agreed to add teeth to ensure that the resources invested into this agency are producing results, assuring the safety of our children.”

Texas’ legislative session begins Jan. 10, and efforts to improve foster care promise to garner much attention.

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