Supporters of doing more to prevent child abuse and neglect before it occurs said Tuesday they are having to accept on faith that there will be more money for that — later.
Backers of a plan to create a new Department of Child Safety acknowledged the legislation, formally introduced Tuesday during the first day of a special legislative session, focuses much of $60 million the new cash on dealing with complaints that already have been made. That includes dealing with a backlog of more than 14,700 cases where there has been no attention paid for at least 60 days.
“That's where the problem is,” said Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, who helped craft the plan which gets its first legislative hearing today.
But she said more money for investigations is not the long-term answer.
“We're operating at the wrong end of the spectrum,” she explained. “We need to move it back to the front door of the Department of Child Safety instead of all the way at the back end where you've got children out homes and courts and families torn apart.”
Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, said he hopes to convince colleagues that dealing with family problems up front, with caseworker intervention and additional services, makes more fiscal sense.
“If you can hold that family together, your cost is about $5,000,” he said.
“If we have to remove the child, our cost is about $50,000,” Orr continued. “So it's much more incentive to help people, provide for the families and hold the family unit together.”
And Orr already is laying the groundwork to make the arguments in the next legislative session — assuming he's reelected — to put the dollars up front.
He's particularly interested in the issue of subsidized child care.
Four years ago, in a budget-cutting maneuver, lawmakers and the governor froze enrollment in the program. Youngsters already getting care were allowed to stay. But new subsidizes were not made available even when other children no longer needed them.
John Arnold, budget adviser to Gov. Jan Brewer, said there are about 7,500 children still left in the program — and a waiting list exceeding 28,000.
Brewer's budget provides enough to put enrollment up to 8,500, but Orr said he believes a case can be made from a financial standpoint to pump even more dollars in — and not just because it means fewer children left home alone or in unsafe situations who become new cases of neglect.
He said working parents mean parents who no longer need welfare payments and no longer need subsidized housing. And he wants to conduct a study to follow those cases.
“So I can actually show a cost-benefit to my (Republican) caucus and say, ‘Look, this person got a child care subsidy, they got a job,’” Orr said. “Because child-care subsidy gets people to work.”
Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, said if it were up to her, there would be more money in the plan right now for prevention.
“I think we have to alleviate pressure on the system,” she said, but McCune Davis said there are limited dollars available. And she agreed that the first priority has to be dealing with the backlog.
Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said that means being patient in getting that change in focus.
Meyer said there is a promise from Charles Flanagan, tapped by the governor to direct the new agency, that resources would be move from investigations to prevention once that backlog is eliminated. He said lawmakers will be watching.
“The plan will be to hold them accountable,” Meyer said. “We should know by next legislative session how they're doing with the backlog and where they are with investing those dollars in preventative services.”
The call for a separate agency follows last year's discovery, almost by accident, that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect complaints had never been investigated, a violation of state law.
Lawmakers hope to give the plan final approval on Thursday.