The Legislature will have a full slate when it begins its new session Jan. 13.
Child Protective Services — whose mission is keeping children safe from abuse and neglect — is the most urgent. But without vision and bravery, solving its problems may prove intractable, as they have before, sadly.
Revelations that 5,554 cases — each a child someone thought was in enough danger of abuse or neglect to merit contacting authorities — were set aside without even a cursory investigation created a storm of publicity. Recriminations followed about the effectiveness and efficiency of the state agency .
A task force put together by Gov. Jan Brewer has, as of Jan. 2, assigned 4,532 of those cases, and investigators have seen 2,155 children.
The finger-pointing that accompanies such a massive failure has the potential to suck all the oxygen out of improvement efforts — a replay of numerous previous outrages. Changes are made, perhaps a high-level employee or two are fired, and the problems that riddle the child welfare system remain.
The failure is no surprise. Arizona’s system carries a backlog of 10,000 cases, which don’t include those 5,554 reports simply set aside. The existing configuration overloads and drives out caseworkers, creates logistical and bureaucratic obstacles that work against families and children involved with CPS, and doesn’t provide continuity of care.
There’s no mystery here — CPS doesn’t have enough employees to handle all the cases. According to agency data, in August CPS had 961 case-carrying specialists and 230 in training. That’s still 391 positions short of the number needed to bring caseworker-to-caseload ratios to where they should be, according to national standards.
Our Arizona child should have more to protect her from abuse and neglect than an underfunded system that’s duct-taped together with a wish and a prayer.
Any realistic hope for improvement seems remote. Every possibility needs to be open for discussion, including funding. Yet Senate President Andy Biggs, a Republican from Gilbert, already has said he doesn’t think CPS needs more money.
Money isn’t the only answer but is almost certainly a large part of the solution. What we know for sure is that the system we have doesn’t work and never has.
Lawmakers slashed $33 million from CPS between 2008 and 2011. No cuts were made in 2012, and $27 million was given back last fiscal year and $45 million more this year.
Those are hefty figures. But the budget wasn’t enough before cutting began, and it certainly isn’t enough considering the number of reports requiring investigation has increased by 16 percent (2,840 in real numbers).
Arizona’s chronic underfunding and cuts to child-welfare services and related needs, like drug treatment, mental-health services and family-aid programs, have taken a toll. Destruction of a system through budget cuts is easy enough — rebuilding is the challenge, and it takes time.
Child welfare isn’t like an assembly line that can be turned off when money is tight and turned back on when funding comes in.
Child welfare shouldn’t be understood as the sole responsibility of the CPS bureaucratic silo. When the state budget was slashed, it also decimated programs shown to keep kids safe and help families. Tucson Democrat Steve Farley, who represents central Tucson in the state Senate, said as much Friday on the Bill Buckmaster radio show.
When Biggs said you can’t just throw money at the problem, “he’s ignoring the fact that he stole money from the solutions,” Farley said.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said Friday that he wants to divert tobacco tax money from early childhood development to helping foster children and foster families. At first glance his suggestion looks like a nonstarter, as early childhood education is an important part of the child-welfare umbrella, not to mention problems with the funding mechanisms involved. Still, it’s encouraging that Kavanagh recognizes the problem. We need ideas and constructive suggestions, not blanket statements.
This is a chance for Arizona to rethink child welfare and build and fund a system that is intentional and based on what works — helping families before they get to a breaking point. A telling figure, that the reports of child neglect have increased 36 percent over the past five years, indicates there are opportunities to intervene with child-care assistance, drug treatment programs for parents, income and food help and medical care.
But nothing will change unless lawmakers of both parties know — and hear — that protecting children is a priority for voters. Getting the CPS system back to its status quo is no fix, because backlogs and overloaded caseworkers have always been the norm.
So this is the question to answer: What is keeping a child safe worth to you?