Austin - The strain of handling the huge child custody case involving a polygamous sect in West Texas is trickling down through the ranks of Child Protective Services caseworkers who are pinching pennies while waiting for the state to repay them for overdue travel expenses.
Officials from the Texas Department of Family Protective Services say the agency is struggling to reduce a growing backlog in reimbursement requests for out-of-pocket expenses from caseworkers in the field who say the skyrocketing price of gasoline is hampering their ability to do their jobs.
Darrell Azar, a spokesman for the agency that oversees Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services, blamed the backlog in part on the ongoing operations at the West Texas polygamist ranch where more than 460 children have been taken into state custody. But he also said the agency will soon hire an additional auditor and as many as eight temporary employees to process the avalanche of expense reports being filed not only from the West Texas operations but also from caseworkers statewide.
"We are behind, there's no doubt," Azar said last week. "But plans are in place to speed up reimbursements."
Azar said the agency has heard "anecdotal complaints" from CPS workers that they are having to dig deeper into their own pockets as they drive hundreds of miles a week checking up on youngsters in foster care or on parents at risk of losing custody of their children. The agency normally processes reimbursement within two to three weeks after they are submitted, but the backlog has extended the time by a couple of weeks, he said.
'I'm out of gas'
But a longtime CPS worker in the Dallas-Fort Worth region said any delay inflicts almost immediate pain on employees.
"We're being told that we might have to wait another 30 days for our expense checks. With the price of gas at about $4 a gallon, we're hurting," said the worker, who asked that her name not be used out of concern that it might jeopardize her job. "I typically drive about 300 miles a week. My credit card is maxed out, and I'm out of gas."
Mike Gross, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union, said his office has fielded complaints about slow reimbursements and the state's policy of calculating mileage based on the shortest possible route to and from each destination workers must visit. The effect of the policy, he said, is that workers often use bypasses and beltways to avoid congestion and save time, even if the routes are a few miles longer.
"They're having to eat those extra miles," Gross said.
Azar said his department can do little about the policy, which has been in place for several years and applies to all state agencies. CPS workers are reimbursed at 50.5 cents per mile, the maximum under federal standards, he added.
Operations resulting from the April 3 raid on the compound near Eldorado operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are threatening to blow a hole in the state budget. Preliminary costs for employee overtime, travel and lodging for the first few weeks show expenditures topping $5.5 million. That figure is expected to rise dramatically as more invoices are submitted from the field.
The cost of providing foster care for the children in custody plus support services is expected to run at least $1.7 million per month for as long as the youngsters remain wards of the state. The cost of legal representation for the children has not been fully calculated but is expected to go well into the millions.
The CPS worker in North Texas, who is not part of the Eldorado operations, said she and many of her co-workers fear that as attention is focused on the children from the compound, the day-to-day needs of the rest of the work force might be overlooked.
The slow pace of reimbursements, she said, affects not only her professional life, but also her personal life.
"I'm having to make choices between buying gas for the car so I can make my visits or buying medicines for" her medical condition, she said. "I'm fixing to go to [a charity] to get my meds. It's that bad."
Azar said the agency is sympathetic to such reports and is working to minimize any hardships.
"I think most of this goes back to the price of gas, which affects just about everybody, including state employees," he said. "I think that what's happening is that, as gas prices go up, our employees file their expense reports faster and faster. And that results in the backlogs. Add in the huge amount of invoices coming in from Eldorado, and the backlogs just get bigger. That's why we're adding staff and trying to speed things up."