PHOENIX - Arizona's child-welfare system continues to be strained by increases in reports of abuse and neglect and in placements of children in foster care even as the state makes progress in areas such as reuniting children with families.
That's the assessment offered by state officials and child-welfare advocates in the wake of the state's release Thursday of its latest twice-yearly report on Child Protective Services, The Arizona Republic reported.
The report said Arizona has a record 14,314 children in foster care in March, up from 12,453 a year earlier.
Meanwhile, the number of hotline reports of abuse and neglect rose from just under 20,500 to over 22,100 during the same period.
"The rate of growth doesn't seem like it can be sustained, and yet it isn't slowing," said Michael Wisehart, acting deputy assistant director for the Department of Economic Security.
On the plus side, the number of children reunified with their families rose to 2,534, up from 1,848, and the number of licensed foster homes inched upward to 3,516 from 3,480.
Meanwhile, the annual rate of turnover among CPS workers has dropped to 28 percent this year from 33 percent last year, and Wisehart said further improvement is expected as more workers stay longer when they're joined by new workers now in training.
Gov. Jan Brewer and state lawmakers have focused increased scrutiny on CPS and provided approximately $60 million of additional funding for CPS to its parent agency, DES.
The money, which is in the state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, includes money for 114 additional CPS workers, according to the legislative budget office.
Some officials and advocates cited previous budget cuts that slashed child-care subsidies and other programs for struggling families during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath.
"We're just seeing more and more Arizona families in trouble. They're losing every benefit that they had at the state level," said Marsha Porter, director of the Phoenix Crisis Nursery and a former CPS administrator.
Advocates and officials said there's only so much the agency can do about the challenges faced by many families, but the officials cited steps being taken by the agency.
Those include sending low-level reports to community agencies and implementing a new sorting system to ease caseloads.
Along with plans to hire more workers, the additional funding will pay for group-home and shelter beds, growth in child-care services for foster kids and intensive family services aimed at keeping families together.
A legislator who co-chairs a CPS oversight committee said she is encouraged that the agency is pursuing new initiatives to keep kids out of foster care.
"It looks like they're headed in a positive direction," said Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix. "But I think we need to remain anchored in the data, no matter how discouraging it may be."