When children are at risk, we all have two basic responsibilities. We’ve got to strengthen families, so we can prevent abuse or neglect whenever possible. And, when abuse or neglect happens, we must take swift but thoughtful actions that give kids the best possible chance to grow up in a safe and loving permanent family. Today, we are failing. But we can do better.
We got here because we paid too little attention to the problems facing families and state agencies and because the attention we paid came too late. During the Great Recession, so many families lost homes and jobs and health care and hope. And research shows that, when that happens, children pay the price. At the same time, we allowed Child Protective Services (CPS) and other community institutions to weaken, undermining their ability to help when children needed them most.
The announcement last month that 6,500 reports of abuse and neglect had gone uninvestigated is the latest alarm bell. And we should expect a swift response to make sure these children are safe. But our response must go beyond these new investigations. We already had 10,000 so-called “inactive” cases that CPS staff hadn’t touched in more than 60 days. And once investigations are done, children and parents need help and support and connection to a future. There are already more than 15,000 children living in temporary foster care – enough to fill every seat at Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum and still leave children standing in the aisles. Our responsibilities to them are no less real and no less urgent.
There is hope. A CPS Oversight Committee comprised of determined and insightful legislators and community leaders was just beginning its work when the latest alarm sounded. Gov. Jan Brewer has taken important initial steps bringing in an outside review team to oversee the investigation of the 6,500 reports. And the state Legislature demonstrated strong bipartisan support earlier this year for initial improvements in CPS and strategies to strengthen families so that more children can stay safely at home.
Arizonans from all around the state are getting personally involved. In an open forum Children’s Action Alliance co-sponsored with 10 other partners, 400 people came to stand up for kids and to offer concrete ideas for improvement. Many more are sending in their suggestions online.
Brewer should assemble a team of national and Arizona experts in prevention, investigations, and recovery to turn the best ideas into action in five key areas:
1. Reinvest in prevention and community support, so fewer families ever reach the breaking point. Child care assistance, mental health services and coaching for struggling parents would go a long way.
2. Increase CPS staffing, training, compensation, supervision, and resources to bring caseloads down and give dedicated caseworkers the chance to succeed.
3. Repair CPS systems for prioritizing and responding to reports.
4. Build real partnerships with foster families, grandparents and other relatives caring for children, and community-based social services agencies to help children recover and build successful lives. Today, we’re letting these assets go to waste.
5. Create new and better ways to give neglected children safe and healthy families. Many overwhelmed parents who have committed no crime but have crossed the line into neglect can get back on track with proven support strategies in the community.
Some lawmakers are shaking their heads at the suggestion of more resources. But they should stop and listen to the foster parents, community social workers, and CPS staff who work with children every day. Those on the front line say our current infrastructure is collapsing with soaring demands. And targeted investments will go a long way to reducing family trauma and the need for foster care.
We can’t expect any simple agency reorganization to deliver the change children need. And we can’t expect our incredibly busy law enforcement agencies to go beyond their expertise to strengthen families or connect children with permanent homes. The number of reports of child neglect has skyrocketed by nearly 50 percent in just four years – far faster than state resources. So today we have a system that is destined to fail, but that is a mistake we can and must correct. Doing better will require smart strategy, strong leadership, sustained commitment, and real resources. Together, we can make 2014 a stronger safer year for Arizona children.
• Dana Wolfe Naimark is president and chief executive officer of Children’s Action Alliance.