PHOENIX — State lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to $6.8 million in additional funds for the state’s new child-welfare agency.
The added funds now only require a signature from Gov. Jan Brewer, who has advocated for the increased spending.
But the approval in both the House and Senate was accompanied by criticism from Democrats aimed at Brewer for focusing more on treating the symptoms rather than the problem.
The legislation adds $6.8 million to the budget of the Division of Child Safety and Family Services, the new agency created earlier this month by the governor’s executive order. It will absorb much of what was in the troubled Child Protective Services division of the Department of Economic Security.
That funding paves the way for hiring 126 caseworkers on top of the 1,195 already authorized in order to deal with the increasing number of complaints of abuse, and make a dent in the backlog of 10,000 cases that have been listed as inactive because they have not been addressed in at least two months.
There also is money for supervisors and support staff.
The measure will become law after Brewer’s anticipated signature when she returns from New Jersey, where she is participating in Super Bowl ceremonies because Arizona is hosting next year’s game. But Charles Flanagan warned this does not mean an immediate influx of new social workers, as it can take six months to hire and train them.
Thursday’s vote was unanimous, but several Democrats said they believe more needs to be done.
Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, pointed out this is the third time in a year lawmakers have voted to boost funding to hire more social workers. And he said that clearly is needed.
But he said a different focus is needed to keep the caseload from continuing to increase, creating a need for even more staff.
Meyer complained the governor’s budget does not boost funding for drug and alcohol treatment and programs designed to prevent domestic violence and keep kids from winding up in the child-welfare system in first place.
He said Brewer is operating as though she’s steering the Titanic.
“She comes out and rearranges the deck chairs,” Meyer said, meaning naming Flanagan as a new director of this now-separate agency.
“We don’t know anything else about what she’s going to do,” he continued.
But House Speaker Andy Tobin called the comparison invalid, saying Brewer took immediate action after reports surfaced that more than 6,500 child-abuse complaints had been ignored.
“We had a governor who stood up as soon as those reports came out,” he said, creating a special team headed by Flanagan to go back over those cases, figure out what went wrong and come up with recommendations for how to change the entire child-welfare system.
“I don’t think we had anybody react as quick as this governor has and as quickly as this Legislature has,” Tobin said. And he said further changes in the system are always an option once Flanagan’s team finishes its report.