PHOENIX - State lawmakers took the first steps Wednesday toward shoring up the state's overburdened Child Protective Services system.

Without dissent, both the House and Senate Appropriations committees approved giving the agency an additional $4.4 million immediately on final approval of the bill. The funding will enable the agency to hire 50 more caseworkers to augment its current 1,075 caseworkers.

But the measure, which still requires final Senate and House approval, may be just the down payment: Gov. Jan Brewer, in her budget request for the coming fiscal year, wants another $14.3 million to hire 150 more caseworkers. In addition, she wants $4.8 million to expand the number of foster families and $29.7 million for increased emergency and residential placement of children, plus another $9.6 million to deal with the increased caseload.

"This is an important step," said Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, who chairs the Senate panel.

"These poor kids have a rough row to hoe to start with," he said. "I do believe that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable."

Clarence Carter, director of the state Department of Economic Security, the parent agency of CPS, assured lawmakers he was not simply asking for more funds. He said CPS has revamped its policies and procedures to do the most with the cash available.

The push to hire more caseworkers brought a query from Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, D-Tucson, about whether there are enough qualified people available to do what can be a demanding job.

"It seems like such a specialized field," she said.

Carter agreed.

"This is a job that requires a very delicate understanding of human interaction," he said. But he told Cajero Bedford there are sufficient "competent, capable, caring people."

He acknowledged there has been a high turnover in the agency.

For some, Carter said, the job may not be what they expect, which is why CPS has created a "virtual job tryout" to put applicants "through the paces" of what the job entails.

According to the Governor's Office, reports of child abuse and neglect rose from 2,685 in July 2009 to 3,550 just this past November. And the number of youngsters in CPS care outside their own homes rose from 10,258 in mid-2010 to nearly 14,400 in October.

Carter said that isn't necessarily due to more abuse, but rather "an increase in public diligence," with people more sensitive to suspected abuse.

He also cautioned lawmakers that simply providing more funds does not mean the agency is done seeking help from the Legislature.

"Having the strongest possible child welfare system is a journey," he said, "not a destination."

"These poor kids have a rough row to hoe to start with. I do believe that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable."

Don Shooter