Arizona’s child-protection and -welfare system does not work — and, as we have noted, it is not built to work. In fact, to state that the Child Protective Services system has been “built” suggests a process of intentional development that no one with common sense could find in its jumble of bureaucracy, paperwork and contradictory missions.
The latest scandal, the discovery of 6,554 reports of child abuse and neglect going back to 2009 that were set aside and never investigated, a practice that put unknown numbers of children in danger, must be the last in a depressingly long list of CPS failures.
But without an exhaustive examination of how Arizona responds to families in crisis and the commitment to making large-scale improvements, including those we know will cost money and lots of it, no amount of bemoaning a broken system will make a whit of difference.
Over several decades Arizona has swung between emphasizing family reunification, child safety and reducing the number of kids placed in foster care. The changes in direction have been prompted by murders or serious injury of children who were known to CPS, sometimes combined with agency leadership changes spurred by tragedy or politics.
It’s a national trend, according to Theresa Costello, the executive director of ACTION for Child Protection and director of the National Resources Center for Child Protective Services. The organization has worked with Arizona within the last decade on procedures for determining if a child is safe, but is not now involved.
“I think our child protective services, at large, are very reactive to those kind of tragedies,” she said. “We have seen many, many circumstances where policies are changed based on one bad case and it doesn’t end up to be good changes.”
The instability that creates prevents improvements from taking hold, Costello said.
Arizona was an early adopter of what is now being recognized as an effective way to keep children safe and allocating resources.
It’s often called “differential response” or “family assessment response” and is based on the effective triaging of initial reports of child abuse or neglect. Minnesota has had good results, Costello said, and other communities are beginning to use it.
Reports coming in are assessed at the beginning; those that include sexual abuse or severe physical abuse, for example, are sent to child-welfare caseworkers for full investigation.
Low-risk families are referred directly to community agencies that help with child care, parenting classes, drug treatment and similar support services, and the family participates voluntarily.
“By differentiating between these two and saying not all families are the same, that has allowed communities to put resources into investigating,” Costello said.
Arizona did this until 2003, when the Legislature required that every report be investigated — it was a reaction to the deaths of children who had been known to CPS.
The change is understandable, to demand that every case be investigated. But what sounds like a good idea can have unintended consequences. A flood of reports can overwhelm a system beset by high employee turnover and crushing caseloads.
An independent team headed by Charles Flanagan, director of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, is examining those 6,554 cases and will create a set of reform recommendations, which is planned by Jan. 31, said Jennifer Bowser, spokeswoman for the Child Advocate Response Evaluation, or CARE, Team.
The evidence is clear that the existing CPS system is not capable of keeping up with the needs of Arizona children and families. Every option, including returning to a differential-response approach, must be carefully considered.
We have no choice but to change.