Arizona lawmakers will convene Tuesday afternoon for a special legislative session with the task of doing what the body has effectively failed to do: protect and care for neglected and abused children.
Gov. Jan Brewer wants the Legislature to create a stand-alone Department of Child Safety that will report directly to the governor, taking it out of the gargantuan bureaucracy of the Department of Economic Security.
She is asking for $60 million, in addition to the $59 million that is part of the fiscal year 2015 budget that begins July 1. The child welfare agency’s budget is now about $711 million.
Some facts to give a picture of where the situation stands today:
- An average of 942 reports of child abuse or neglect are made each week.
- Nearly 16,000 children are in foster care.
- 14,777 active cases have not been updated or changed in the past 60 days.
- The caseworker turnover rate is now 28 percent.
In an undertaking so massive, it’s useful to break down the discussion into some fundamental questions and points.
Who should protect babies, toddlers, children and teens when their biological parents can’t or don’t?
Every child should be a wanted child, born into a stable home with a family that can and wants to provide for them, but that’s not reality. Sometimes family and religious groups can help, but not always, and people in greatest need often don’t have those connections to begin with.
Regardless of who should care for them, who is equipped?
Nonprofit and community organizations do tremendous work, but they rely on the financial resources of the state. We need a state child welfare agency to do work on the scale that’s needed.
Is the Legislature willing to spend money? Enough to do the job right, or just to say they did something?
This is crucial. Everything about child welfare costs money. It makes sense to do what works on the front end – hiring and training caseworkers and case aides, offering parents skills classes, counseling, anger management, education – instead of waiting for a crisis to happen.
What is involved in keeping kids safe?
The answer reaches across the board into education, health care, employment, transportation, housing. The scope of the special session is on creating a Department of Child Safety, but it’s worth noting several shortcomings that cannot be ignored in the long term.
For example, the proposal doesn’t include money for addiction treatment – even though substance abuse is involved in the majority of cases. Such a common thread needs to be included in the solution, otherwise it will undercut all other efforts.
Likewise, child-care subsidies are far short of what’s needed. Brewer includes $4 million to help low-income families pay for licensed child care. The waiting list for this help has some 6,000 kids on it right now, and according, to state Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, it would take about $25 million to assist all of those families.
Some Republican lawmakers have fought against these subsidies, loath as they are to support anything with the word “subsidy” in its name. So change the name if necessary, but don’t let a name get in the way of what should be plain fiscal common sense: Don’t force a parent to leave a child at home alone or in an unstable situation because she has to go to work and can’t afford the market rate.
Are we cleaning up the existing mess – one that blew up with the discovery that 6,500 reports had been ignored — or building a system that can help families and take good care of children who must be removed from their homes?
The answer has to be “both.”
Brewer’s proposal has the bones to begin that – she calls for money to clear up case backlogs, hire and train employees and offer stipends to caseworkers at 18 months and 36 months of employment.
The focus on employee retention and improved working conditions must include case aides and other staff to recognize the grueling frontline nature of their work. Good management builds a culture of teamwork and shared mission instead of creating divisions.
The new agency won’t emerge from whole cloth next week. The Legislature should approve a framework that has the flexibility needed to build instead of simply reorganize the state’s child welfare function.
Because after all the questions above have been worked through, the query with the most weight remains:
What is the financial and human cost of doing nothing?
That’s the question no child should have to answer.