The sheer number of abuse allegations that Arizona Child Protective Services revealed it did not investigate — at least 6,500 — obscures a more revealing fact, one that should make us realize we aren’t grappling with the real problem yet.
The CPS employees who set aside those reports, categorizing them as “Not Investigated,” were working for special teams intended to clear up the backlog of child-abuse or neglect allegations.
In other words, the CPS solution to the crisis of a backlog of cases led to a new crisis of uninvestigated allegations.
The Legislature and governor are reacting as you would expect: They’re asking how this could have happened.
In a written statement, Gov. Jan Brewer called it an “inexcusable failure” and said “there must be accountability in this matter and I will insist on further reforms to make sure that it cannot happen again.”
State Senate President Andy Biggs told Capitol Media Services he’s not interested in increasing CPS’ funding after approving a boost last year: “That’s everybody’s response to everything — we need more government money.”
But the fact that CPS’ solution led to a new crisis of the same sort should be telling us something. Even after increasing funding for CPS last year, we as a state, through our Legislature, still have not appreciated the magnitude of Arizona’s child-welfare problem. No matter how much we cajole and reform the agency, CPS cannot, figuratively, drink from a fire hose.
CPS caseworkers have overwhelming case loads — 75-80 percent higher than federal standards recommend — which, along with low pay and draining work, leads to high turnover rates of about 30 percent per year. New caseworkers make roughly $33,000 per year, and experienced specialists make about $39,000, low in my view for keeping people in these difficult jobs.
It’s unrealistic for us to expect caseworkers to solve hard-to-crack cases of children who drop off the map, like the three sisters discovered by Tucson police imprisoned in their home last week, if the agency is unable to deal with the cases it knows about or investigate all the calls that come in.
“This is not a new issue,” Dana Wolfe Naimark, president of the Children’s Action Alliance, told me. “There are 10,000 cases staff hasn’t touched.”
She’s referring there to cases labeled “inactive” because they haven’t been looked at in months. Some are left over from caseworkers who left the agency for other jobs. Others are simply sitting on a desk waiting for an overwhelmed caseworker to get to them.
“We have thousands of investigations that stay open for months,” Naimark said. The recent discovery of the thousands of files labeled Not Investigated “is a new piece of the same puzzle. We need to address the whole puzzle.”
The director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, of which CPS is a part, has asked the Legislature for $115 million in additional funding to hire 444 new employees, including 394 additional caseworkers.
To reduce the fire-hose effect, we not only need to continue to build a bigger, more capable Child Protective Services, but also to restore funding for the services that used to keep kids out of the CPS system. In our state, which leads the nation in the growth of its foster-care population at the same time fewer people are stepping up to be foster parents, we must also raise the stipends for foster parents back to their pre-2009 levels, if not higher.
While Arizona’s child-welfare system never was ideal, before the recession we taxpayers paid for services that helped keep children out of the CPS system. In 2009, as state tax revenues were dwindling, the Legislature slashed funding in key areas:
• Parental training, counseling and other preventative services for families;
• Substance abuse treatment services for parents of vulnerable kids;
• Child-care subsidies for working parents;
• Temporary cash assistance for needy families.
This funding has not been restored.
“The bottom line is, we had a better system where we were providing services at the community level. Many of the services are gone,” said State Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, the Democrat who co-chairs a special legislative committee overseeing Child Protective Services.
At the same time these and other cuts were taking place, the same economic pressures were increasing the need for those services, she said.
“What the caseworkers said in our first hearing is that because of economic pressures and other things going on in the community, families are under a high degree of stress,” she said.
State Sen. Nancy Barto, a Republican who co-chairs the CPS committee, did not return my calls seeking comment.
In one year, from fiscal years 2011 to 2012, the number of children entering foster care in Arizona went up by 2,165, a 26 percent increase. Almost all of the increase was due to parental neglect, a problem that is more easily remedied by social services than abuse is.
None of the longer-term, systemic problems mean there isn’t also a short-term management problem. Arizona Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter announced a plan last Monday to review within one week all 6,000 cases labeled “Not Investigated” and resolve them all by January — a plan that had the air of another rushed solution that would lead to another crisis.
Carter’s job, and those of others more directly implicated in the shelved cases, should be on the line now. But it would be foolish to think we keep unluckily hiring incompetents or uncaring people for the jobs. Perhaps the job is just too big.
Solving the bigger problem is a duty that belongs, perhaps unfortunately, to our Legislature.
“We are now in a political environment where money will only be applied when there is a case made for it,” McCune Davis said, noting she too is unwilling to blindly funnel money to CPS.
That’s as it should be — we want our legislators to be responsible stewards of tax money. But the case for increased, targeted spending on child welfare is not hard to make, though perhaps Carter no longer has the credibility to make it.
Spending more on prevention efforts, foster care and lowering CPS caseloads should go a long way toward resolving Arizona’s child-welfare crisis.