The 2013 legislative session began with a unanimous vote in the House and the Senate to appropriate emergency funding for additional Child Protective Services staff. With that vote, lawmakers affirmed child safety as a top priority.
But the need for action doesn’t end there. Lawmakers hold the safety of thousands of children in their hands as the budget negotiations heat up for fiscal year 2014.
The CPS system is so overwhelmed that basic steps for child safety take far too long or don’t happen at all. Caseloads for the CPS staff are double what they should be. Children wait in foster care while their parents wait for substance abuse treatment. Thousands of investigations stay open for months on end and cases stall while children wait. Foster parents struggle to get attention from CPS caseworkers. Children sleep in CPS offices because there aren’t enough foster families to take them home.
The facts make it clear that the $77 million proposed by Gov. Jan Brewer for the CPS budget for next year is the bare minimum needed for child safety. This funding pays for additional CPS staff, child care for abused and neglected children, substance abuse treatment so parents can become safe and responsible, foster care and adoption for more children, and legal costs to move children into permanent homes.
Taxpayers clearly expect accountability and scrutiny for state spending to improve children’s safety. The Department of Economic Security has already streamlined procedures, improved staff recruitment, and integrated business models into their operations to make the work of CPS more efficient. But those strategies are simply and clearly not enough to deal with a 33 percent rise in the number of reports of abuse and neglect and a 34 percent rise in the number of children living in foster care. There are now more than 14,000 children living in foster care — enough to fill the seats in Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum! The resources have to increase to protect more children.
The goal of Child Protective Services is to link each child with a safe and permanent family. Brewer’s budget recognizes that CPS staffing levels are only one part of the system capacity. Adding funding for additional CPS staff without corresponding funding for child care, parent support, and foster care and adoption is like adding more police officers without adding more patrol cars and radios. The new officers – like the new CPS staff — might be able to answer the phone, but they can’t do their jobs to protect safety without the necessary tools.
Each year, the state budget reflects our common commitments to Arizona. For 2014, lawmakers should pass a state budget that closes glaring gaps in our child safety system. There is no commitment more important than that.
• Dana Wolfe Naimark is president and CEO of the Phoenix-based Children’s Action Alliance.