Rebuffing a bid to add new last-minute string to funding, state senators gave preliminary approval Wednesday to creating a new Department of Child Safety and providing what is now $63 million in new cash to get it started.
The voice vote came over the objections of Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, who questioned why lawmakers were giving the new agency all of the new money up front without any requirement to prove that it's actually being properly spent. She said, for example, that funds to hire new caseworkers to both deal with the backlog of abuse and neglect complaints and stay current with new reports should be released in stages as those employees are brought on board.
But that proposal died amid bipartisan opposition, with Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, invoking the name of Gov. Jan Brewer who had asked the package be approved as introduced.
“As a practical matter, the governor has threatened to veto the bill,” he warned. “I don't want to be here next week.”
But Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said there's no reason for that threat.
He said the agency will start the new fiscal year with more than $760 million being transferred over from the Department of Economic Security where the old Child Protective Services has been housed. With funding already approved just last month, coupled with the new dollars in this plan, that brings the agency's budget up above $830 million.
Biggs said all he and Ward want to do is hold back about $12 million until October — three months into the new budget year — to ensure the new agency hires the caseworkers it has promised. Release of those funds would also depend on Charles Flanagan, chosen by Brewer to head the new agency, coming up with a plan to wipe out the backlog of more than 14,700 existing cases which have remained untouched for at least 60 days.
“What it does is it provides a measure of transparency and accountability, which the director says he supports,” Biggs argued. He said Flanagan has promised he would meet certain goals, like having all those new employees hired by October.
“But apparently he's not so confident that he can accomplish them,” Biggs chided.
While Ward's amendment was defeated because changes to the plan would displease the governor, that did not apply across the board: On a bipartisan vote, a majority of senators agreed to add another $3 million to the plan, money not in what Brewer presented.
A third of that would be in extra dollars for subsidized child care for low-income working parents, on top of $4 million already in the package. There's also another $1 million in aid for grandparents who agree to take children that DCS has removed from their homes, and an equal amount for support services for families.
Gubernatorial spokesman Andrew Wilder said his boss is OK with that change, even though it wasn't part of the deal. He said Brewer believes spending money this way now save cash later.
“The fiscally conservative approach to these challenging child safety issues is to spend more on prevention on the front end so the state is paying less on foster care and congregate care on the back end,” he said.
A final Senate vote is set for tomorrow, with the package then set for House action.
The legislation is the culmination of years of frustration with what had been Child Protective Services and questions of how effective it has been at preventing and dealing with cases of abuse and neglect.
What finally brought the issue to a head was the discovery last year that 6,500 complaints to the agency had gone uninvestigated — and might well have stayed uncovered. That led to questions of whether CPS could be properly watched as a small part of the much larger Department of Economic Security.
This legislation not only creates a Cabinet-level agency but also adds new provisions for both internal and external oversight.
Not everyone is convinced the problems in child welfare can be solved by a new agency and more money.
Sen. Chester Crandell said the number of cases of abuse and neglect dropped in 2009 and then jumped even as spending increased. Now he said lawmakers are being asked for more cash.
“I don't mind as a state legislator in spending money on fixing problems that we have,” he said. “But apparently we haven't done the research to determine why we had in 2012 a huge jump.”
John Arnold, the governor's budget director, said there's normally a link between recession and abuse. But he said that did not happen this time, and he said even as Arizona's caseload is increasing now, other states are showing a decline.
“We don't have a good answer for you on why and what's happened,” he said. Arnold said he is “hopeful” that a new agency, with a new data system, will create “the kind of data that we need in the future that we need to tell that story.”
Senators did reject a proposal by Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, to make a small but significant change in the agency's mission.
As crafted, the legislation says its primary role is “to protect children.” Ableser sought to add the words, “from abuse and to strengthen and preserve the family.”
Ableser, a family counselor, said he has seen situations where child welfare workers, unable to substantiate allegations of abuse, decide instead to conclude that a parent is guilty of neglect — and use that to remove a child from the “loving arms” of a parent
And what makes that possible, he said, is that the definition of "neglect'' in existing law — one that will carry forward into the new agency: The inability or unwillingness of a parent, guardian or custodian of a child to provide that child with supervision, food, clothing, shelter or medical care. Ableser said that is far too nebulous, allowing some 22-year-old caseworker to build a case of neglect and take a child from a home.
Ableser said he's confident that likely would not happen with Flanagan in charge. But the senator said he fears what someone else might do with that authority down the road.