- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

DALLAS (AP) - Democratic Texas lawmakers have filed bills seeking to restore a requirement that Child Protective Services caseworkers have at least a four-year college degree, including one that would add a stipulation that the degree be in a relevant field.

Faced with a shortage of caseworkers and a beleaguered child welfare system, the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services removed the bachelor’s degree requirement last May, making Texas one of few states without such a requirement. Instead, caseworkers need only have 60 college credit hours and two years of relevant work experience or 90 credit hours and one year of experience.

But with the recent granting of about $140 million in emergency funding to hire 800 new caseworkers and give pay increases to thousands of existing ones, child advocates say the educational standards should be restored and even strengthened by requiring a worker’s degree be in social work or some other human services-related field.

“If you are bringing to the table specific tools that were always meant for this area, you’re going to see better outcomes,” said Will Francis, government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. He said research shows that such workers are more effective in developing permanency plans for those in foster care.

Experts say the skills learned from a higher education in the field are needed. They also add research shows those with degrees in social work and human services stay at their jobs longer.

“When you are talking about very complex issues like substance abuse and family violence, and what families are experiencing who generally have their kids removed, those are complicated. You can’t solve those overnight,” said Monica Faulkner, director of the Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing at the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin.

She said a social work background is also helpful in “giving a voice” to those placed in foster care.

If the educational standards are restored, it apparently would have to come through a change in the law. DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the agency has no plans to reinstate the four-year degree requirement.

“We obviously need to do anything we can - pull out all of the stops - to try to reduce our turnover problem. And if we can do that without diminishing the quality of the workers we hire, why not try it? You’re expanding the pool of applicants,” said Crimmins, adding the change also gives people in other CPS roles a chance to become caseworkers.

Although the two bills seeking to restore the degree requirement have been filed by Democrats, who are in the minority in the Legislature, there has been a swell in bipartisan support for an overhaul of the troubled child welfare system, so they could get some Republican support.

State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, an El Paso Democrat who sponsored one of the bills, said she doesn’t think standards should have been lowered to solve the turnover problem.

The Child Welfare League of America recommends caseworkers have at the minimum a bachelor’s in social work or a related field.

Francis recently surveyed the educational requirements across the U.S. and found 46 states require at least a four-year degree to be hired as a caseworker - and most require the degree to be in social work or a human services-related field.

“Now that we have the salary increase, it makes absolutely no sense to pull that floor down,” said Madeline McClure, whose advocacy group TexProtects: Texas Association for the Protection of Children recommends DFPS move toward a workforce in which most of the caseworkers have bachelor’s or master’s in social work.

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