There was a resounding, passionate theme shared by more than 150 people who attended a child-welfare forum Thursday night: Put children and families first.

Grandparents, parents, educators and caseworkers urged Southern Arizona’s legislators to provide more child-care subsidies, fund more in-home services and provide caregivers, such as grandparents raising grandchildren, with the support and funding they need.

“Arizona is a case study for what happens when you stop funding services and prevention,” said Emily Jenkins, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Council of Human Service Providers.

Thursday’s forum, “Keeping Children Safe and Healthy: Prevention, Child Care and CPS,” was moderated by former state Sen. Linda Lopez, now division director with the Easter Seals Blake Foundation, and included state representatives Ethan Orr, Bruce Wheeler, Stefanie Mach, Victoria Steele and Sally Ann Gonzales.

State Sens. David Bradley, Steve Farley and Leah Landrum Taylor also attended.

Taylor was there on behalf of Gov. Jan Brewer‘s CARE team, a group of investigators who have monitored progress on 6,554 previously ignored reports of possible child abuse or neglect, 875 of which are in Pima County.

Taylor said the CARE team, which will present its findings to the governor today, has succeeded in having all of the neglected cases assigned to a caseworker.

More details on the report to the governor will be released soon, she said.

Eric Schindler, president and chief executive officer of Tucson’s Child and Family Resources, told the panel of legislators that the relationship between caseworkers and service providers needs to be improved, with more emphasis on working together to help keep families intact.

With a record number of children in out-of-home care — 15,000 in the state and 5,000 in Pima County as of early December — Arizona is removing children from their homes at the highest rate in the nation.

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“I’m glad that the governor and the legislative majority are now focused on this issue,” said Farley, a Tucson Democrat. “I’m sad that it took the outrage of all of these uninvestigated cases to get to this point.”

Retired Pima County Juvenile Court Judge Patricia Escher said that when she started her work on child- dependency cases she was “appalled.”

What was quickly apparent, she said, was that the CPS caseworkers were completely overwhelmed.

“And this was when there were 3,000 children in out-of-home care,” she said. “How can you possibly expect them to do their jobs with 5,000 children in care?”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at