Outrage that Arizona state workers set aside more than 6,000 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect over the past four years is not mitigated by understanding how woefully inadequate our state child-welfare system has been for years.
The system is designed to fail. Child Protective Services has long survived as a shell perched on an infrastructure that lacks the consistent and adequate budget necessary to hire, train and keep enough employees who have the knowledge, experience and fortitude to do what is unquestionably some of the most difficult work possible.
The result is predictable. Children have been murdered or seriously injured by their parents during or after involvement with CPS. The latest revelation of abuse and neglect reports going uninvestigated is shocking only in its scale.
The practice began in 2009 and became so pervasive that in 2013 about 3,000 reports — one of every 12 made to CPS — were closed without investigation. Those files were marked “NI” for “not for investigation.”
Each of those cases involve a child whose situation raised enough alarm that someone called CPS expecting that the proper authorities would look into it and make sure that the child wasn’t a victim or abuse or neglect.
That assumption was misguided, not solely because a person, or persons, entrusted to watch out for children made decisions to not investigate some reports, but because it’s founded on the expectation that Arizona has a system that is built to keep kids safe.
Low pay, crushing caseloads and the lack of resources available to help families contribute to a turnover rate in CPS of almost 30 percent each year.
The scale of the problem is daunting. In addition to the at least 6,000 cases marked “NI,” CPS has a backlog of 10,000 cases that are listed as “inactive,” meaning that they’ve gone unattended for two months or more.
Whoever decided it was acceptable to set aside reports of child abuse and neglect without even a preliminary investigation should be fired and investigated for criminal conduct.
Their failures, however, should not damn every CPS employee. The caseworkers, case aides, supervisors and others who endeavor every day to do the best possible for vulnerable children are not architects of this broken system nor the conditions that perpetuate the need to protect children from the very people, their families, who should be caring for them the most.
The underpinnings of child abuse and neglect are well- known. Substance abuse, mental and physical illness, economic stresses, the lack of stable housing or employment are all factors. The connections are well-documented. Reports of neglect made up roughly 70 percent of CPS reports that were marked for investigation last year.
Last fiscal year 10,131 children were removed from their homes. Drugs and alcohol use in the family were factors in almost two-thirds of those cases statewide. In Pima County, substance abuse was involved in 67 percent of cases in which parents lost custody of a child, at least temporarily.
No change to Arizona’s child- welfare system will make a difference if the needs of the parents aren’t addressed in a logical and consistent way.
Some parents are doing the best they can in awful circumstances, or are treating their children the way they were treated by their parents because they don’t know a better way. Some parents are not. Determining which child is in danger, not just in a less-than-optimal circumstance, is not clear-cut.
Any legitimate examination of the child-welfare system will reach beyond CPS and include public funding for substance abuse, mental-health care and job and parenting training for people who need it.
Should the state have to pay for such services? The answer doesn’t matter, because as long as children are born into families where they are neglected and abused, we, as a society, have an obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves.