PHOENIX - Basic services for families are being cut at Arizona's child-welfare agency as it tries to adjust to a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, and documents obtained by the Arizona Republic show budget problems threaten to limit supervised visits between parents and their children.
One memo cited in the Republic's report Wednesday says the shortfall is "affecting the service delivery on our cases, particularly visitation, parent-aide services and transportation costs."
State officials say the Child Protective Services budget gap is up to $35 million. That's more than 12 percent of the $277 million of state and federal funding provided to the Department of Economic Security division that includes CPS for the budget year that began July 1.
"The department has experienced multiple factors contributing to not being able to keep within our budget," one email from a CPS administrator said.
"These factors have all driven up the costs to the department, which is not allowing the department to keep within our budget and is affecting the service delivery on our cases, particularly visitation, parent-aide services and transportation costs."
Child-welfare experts say the changes could make it harder to reunite families and further increase the record number of children in foster care. Attorneys for children and parents say CPS in some cases is disobeying court orders requiring more frequent visits for their clients.
The state is delaying some services for months and requiring upper-management approval for what had recently been standard appointments with mentors known as parent aides.
The budget tightening also could jeopardize federal child-welfare funding.
Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez said she's alarmed by the sudden budget adjustments.
"None of this makes sense to me in terms of doing what's best for the kids. To me, this seems like grounds for some sort of legal action.
"We're not fulfilling our responsibility as the guardians of these children," she said.
State officials acknowledge a current-year budget gap of up to $35 million, about $27 million of it because of the growing number of foster children and the need to place more children in group homes and shelters.
The state has seen a 25 percent increase in the number of kids in foster care this past year, hitting a record 14,500 children last month.
Officials maintain the shortfall has not led to service reductions for families and say the budget gap will be filled with $20 million in federal grant funding intended for a variety of social services.
But internal memos and Republic interviews with service providers, attorneys and others show parents and children are limited to one visit per week even though Maricopa County Juvenile Court judges routinely ordered two visits weekly for babies and children 3 and younger.
"It's true that there's no reduction in dollars, but there is a reduction in services if you look at the fact that everybody isn't able to get services," said Ron Carpio, a vice president for Terros, which runs the Families First substance-abuse program in Maricopa County. "They can't keep up with the visits."
Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter told the Republic that his agency "must begin to learn to live within our means." He said it's too soon to consider asking lawmakers and Gov. Jan Brewer for a midyear budget increase.
"For a long time in this agency, the Child Protective Services system was allowed to spend whatever it needed to spend, and the rest of the agency would make it up," Carter said in an interview.
"We have requested a budget that we believe allows us to manage this system."
"None of this makes sense to me in terms of doing what's best for the kids. To me, this seems like grounds for some sort of legal action. We're not fulfilling our responsibility as the guardians of these children."
Sen. Linda Lopez