IssuesStatewide NewsGovernor Abbott Considers Applications for DFPS Commissioner Appointment

Documents show that three people have applied for the DFPS position: one judge, Sandee Bryan Marion, and two current employees of the department, John Lee and Jim Sylvester.
August 22, 2019
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According to documents obtained by The Texan, three individuals have applied for the lead position with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which is over Child Protective Services (CPS): Sandee Bryan Marion, John Lee, and Jim Sylvester.

Marion currently serves as the chief justice for the Fourth Court of Appeals in Texas. She has served as a judge in San Antonio since 1992, was elected to the Fourth Court in 2002, and became the chief justice in 2015.

Lee is currently a program administrator with Child Protective Services (CPS) in region 6, around the Houston area. Prior to that, he worked as a CPS caseworker, supervisor, and program director.

Sylvester has been the associate commissioner for the Child Protective Investigations Division of CPS since 2017. Before joining CPS, he had a long career in law enforcement in Travis County.

Although State Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land) and DFPS Deputy Commissioner Trevor Woodruff were reportedly on a shortlist for the position, their applications were not included in those obtained through an open records request with the Governor’s office.

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The office became vacant in May when the previous commissioner, Hank Whitman, stepped down. Whitman had served in the position since mid-2016 when Governor Abbott appointed him.

Under his tenure, he successfully pushed for a pay raise for caseworkers in an attempt to decrease the high turnover rate.

“That was way overdue,” said Carrie Wilcoxson, who is a former CPS caseworker and has advocated for CPS reform and drafted legislation for State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio). 

“They were working 65-80 hours a week on $35,000, $38,000, and $40,000.” 

Shortly after entering the office, Whitman also fired several of the agency’s regional administrators and made all of the others reapply for the position.

However, his changes were not enough to bring meaningful change to the department, according to many advocating for CPS reform.

“There’s policy — some good policy — in place,” Wilcoxson told The Texan. “There are some good procedures in place. And then there’s practice.”

The problem, she says, is that the practice does not always line up with the policies and procedures.

This is evident in the ongoing case with the Pardo family, who have been challenging CPS’s removal of their four-year-old son. On Friday, August 9, they attended a status hearing to discuss the family service plan proposed by CPS.

According to the DFPS policy handbook, the plan is supposed to be developed jointly between CPS and the parents. However, the caseworker who testified admitted that she violated this policy by drafting and proposing the plan without cooperating with the family.

Parental rights advocates that The Texan has spoken with have emphasized the same point as Wilcoxson: CPS lacks checks and balances to protect the due process rights of families.

Family Rights Advocacy (FRA), which has been actively supporting the Pardo family, said that the upcoming appointment is pivotal to addressing the problems with CPS.

“The first step is for Governor Abbott to appoint someone to the head of the Department of Family Protective Services who will respect the rights of parents and families,” FRA told The Texan. “Many of the issues with CPS could be handled bureaucratically by changing their policies and procedures, training, and accountability mechanisms for caseworkers and supervisors.”

Whoever becomes the new DFPS Commissioner will have a big job ahead of them to implement the checks and balances that are needed to ensure that the existing CPS policies and procedures to protect due process are put into practice.

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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. While recently finishing his degree in Political Science from Azusa Pacific University, he also interned in the U.S. Senate and co-authored a book on C. S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. In his spare time, he might be reading up on Dostoevsky or attempting to write a novel.