Gov. Jan Brewer signed groundbreaking legislation Thursday to create and fund a new Department of Child Safety, at least in part to solve problems that she may have helped create.
The legislation wrests the child welfare functions away from the Department of Economic Security and sets up the new agency with $845 million in spending authority. Five years ago, in the middle of budget-cutting maneuvers, the old Child Protective Services was operating on less than $450 million.
But far more than just a move of the program to a cabinet-level agency is involved. Not only are there more caseworkers but also new protocols and oversight to ensure that policies are followed and cases do not fall through the cracks.
That last point came in to sharp focus late last year with the disclosure that more than 6,500 complaints had never been investigated despite state laws to the contrary. Staffers who were fired said they were simply trying to deal with an exploding caseload, but the action went unnoticed for years until discovered almost by accident.
“No more excuses, no more secrets, no more faceless decision makers,” Brewer said in signing the legislation. “We have begun to reverse a long-standing crisis and implement long-standing change.”
Brewer put pen to paper just hours after lawmakers unanimously approved the law.
Companion legislation to provide the additional dollars drew only one dissenting vote. Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said the funding should have had more checks and balances to ensure the dollars are properly spent.
That dissent aside, a parade of legislators took turns explaining why they believe the move is overdue.
But Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, told colleagues that the crisis that came to the surface last year — and the backlog of more than 14,000 cases which have gone untouched for at least two months — should have come as no surprise. He said that since 2010 the state, under budgets proposed and signed by Brewer, has cut an accumulated total of more than $200 million in programs designed to prevent child abuse in the first place.
“And we've seen the direct result of what happens when you cut prevention programs,” he said. “You end up with a lot more kids in the system and a lot more money spent later.”
Asked if her administration is at least partly to blame for the crisis, Brewer responded, “We probably are.”
But Charles Flanagan, named by Brewer to head the new agency, said Brewer needed to make “very difficult decisions ... to assure the financial security of this state” when revenues dipped during the recession and the state found itself with a spending plan $3 billion higher than revenues.
“Those tough decisions had consequences,” acknowledged Flanagan who had been director of the Department of Juvenile Corrections until now.
“They were not unexpected, they were not unknown,” he continued. “But we had to do something to save the state back in those days.”
Despite the unanimous vote of approval, there were grumblings about the package. Most troubling to some was their concern that what they see as abuses within the agency will not be addressed.
Ward said the focus should be on children in imminent danger. She said the laws — both existing and future — permit caseworkers to remove children from homes based on some “esoteric feelings” a child may be neglected.
Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Peoria, who has had his own run-ins with CPS over his adopted and foster children, warned colleagues about the power they have given the agency.
“The department in some cases now has gotten to the point where all it's really doing in many of these cases is going in and critiquing the parenting style and deciding whether or not the government likes that parenting style or not, and making people jump through hoops to prove that they're going to parent the way the government wants them to parent,” he complained.
“Abuse of due process is rampant within CPS,” he said. “And noting in this bill is going to change that.”
Brewer, however, defended the actions of caseworkers, saying they have a “very difficult job to do” and sometimes are in a no-win situation when deciding whether to remove a child from a home.
“If they don't do something in one manner, they are ridiculed,” the governor continued. “And if they do it in another way, they are ridiculed.”
Flanagan conceded that, in the past, the state has “failed families on both ends of the spectrum.”
“We have not responded when we should have, we have not removed children when we should have, and we have removed children when we shouldn't have,” he said.
Flanagan said the new agency, armed with adequate funding, will be better able to not only devote the time to looking at each case but that supervisors will have the time to look over caseworkers' shoulders to make sure the right decisions are being made.
Supporters cautioned that this legislation does not mean all the problems are solved.
“It is not a panacea,” said Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, one of the lawmakers on that special panel that crafted the plan. “The only panacea is when adults stop abusing children.”
But Farnsworth and others said the changes in how child abuse and neglect complaints are handled should make major differences for children.
One thing left at least partly undone is that task of trying to prevent problems in the first place.
The legislation does add some new dollars for things like subsidized child care for working poor parents. Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, noted there are still more than 900 new complaints of abuse and neglect coming in each week, and he said there are more than 16,000 children in foster care.
“So there is definite work to be done,” he said.