PHOENIX — The state Senate president is blasting a request for more money for Child Protective Services, saying the agency may have wasted funds restored to it in the last two years.
Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, acknowledged lawmakers cut $33 million between the 2008 and 2011 budget years. But he said there were no cuts in 2012, with $27 million restored last fiscal year and $45 million more this year.
But he said it was during those years of additional cash when CPS staffers marked the majority of 6,000 dropped complaints as “NI,” not for investigation, creating the current crisis.
Biggs did not dispute that caseloads have increased in the last four years. But he said that’s the result of a “false positive” due to additional funding.
“Instead of taking the money and using it to solve cases, they went out and advertised for more,” he said. While that may have turned up more legitimate cases of abuse, Biggs said it also resulted in more false reports.
There were 8,596 unsubstantiated cases for the most recent six-month report, up from 6,946 for the same period a year earlier. But four years before that, the figure was 9,883.
Biggs said, though, that even with more funding, the agency still has a backlog of 10,000 cases listed as inactive, meaning there has been no action on them in at least two months. And that’s on top of the 6,000 just dropped on CPS.
House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said he shares Biggs’ frustration. But Tobin said he has a more immediate concern: Someone needs to check on each of the 6,000 children listed as victims in the complaints. He said that must happen as soon as possible.
He is not pleased with the proposal by Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter to take until the end of January to resolve all 6,000 cases. And even then, some will be handled through an “alternative investigation” that does not require a caseworker to actually go out and take a look.
So Tobin is proposing the state find the money to pay police officers and sheriff’s deputies to locate each of the 6,000 reported victims.
“The first thing is to get eyes on these kids,” he said. Only then, Tobin said, is he interested in discussing additional funding.
The reluctance to give CPS more money comes on the heels of the disclosure of 6,000 uninvestigated cases since 2009, half since the beginning of this year. Several legislative Democrats have asked Gov. Jan Brewer for a special session to provide an immediate cash infusion to the agency.
But Tobin said there is no need to bring lawmakers back before the scheduled Jan. 13 start of the regular session, saying Brewer can shift around money in the DES budget to deal with the immediate problems.
The larger debate will come over Carter’s request for an extra 444 new staffers, including 394 caseworkers on top of the current 1,211, to deal with the increasing caseload. Brewer, who decides how much of Carter’s request to submit to the Legislature, has not yet commented on it or its $115 million price tag.
That is on top of an additional 200 staffers lawmakers added earlier this year.
DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said the added staff enabled CPS to reduce the load per caseworker a bit. But she said it still is far above what are considered acceptable standards.
Biggs questioned whether more money would make any difference, saying the increased funding in recent years did not stop development of an unofficial policy, whose origin is still being investigated, of simply deciding some cases just should not be investigated.
“That’s everybody’s response to everything: We need more government money,” he said.
Biggs said he’s not ruling out added funds, but first he wants a closer look at how the problem of uninvestigated cases occurred.
Peterson said in the five full budget years since 2008, the number of abuse calls rose 26 percent and the number of children in out-of-home placement shot up 45 percent. But the budget is just 22.7 percent higher.
One perennial argument goes to the question of caseworker turnover, a figure the agency has pegged at 30 percent a year. Some of that has been attributed to low pay.
Entry pay is $33,312 a year. An experienced specialist is paid $38,855. But Biggs said he does not believe higher pay will draw more applicants or keep those already hired around longer.
“This is a job where you get in and you are emotionally tapped out,” he said. And he was particularly skeptical of the idea the answer is higher salaries for more experience people.
“These are the same people who trained these guys who are dumping files.”