Social Safety Knot

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: Valley News Issue: August 2014
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Governor Brewer stakes her legacy on reforming Arizona’s broken child-protection system.

During her tenure at Child Protective Services (CPS), former caseworker Ashley Kelly says she saw children who had just been removed from their homes forced to sleep overnight in agency offices before being placed in shelters come morning. Kelly says it happened more often toward the end of her two-year stint with the agency, when she found herself bathing children in the office, feeding them from her own paycheck and putting them down for naps on makeshift beds in her cubicle – all while earning $35,000 a year to handle four or five new cases per week.

Kelly says management knew about the conditions. The Arizona Republic reported them in 2012, too. Arizona averages 940 new child-abuse reports every week – one reason caseworker turnover approaches 30 percent. Other ex-caseworkers echo Kelly’s story.PHM0814PFILE03

But there’s hope such conditions will soon be history. After summoning the Arizona Legislature to a special session in May, Governor Jan Brewer got what she wanted: a rebooted child-welfare agency called the Department of Child Safety (DCS), plus kick-start money (see sidebar). As she signed what she called “the most significant and meaningful child safety reform in Arizona’s history,” she said, “This legislation mandates transparency and accountability. It does this in part by creating a stand-alone agency that for too long has been impaired by backlogs, a hidden bureaucracy and a blurred focus. No more excuses; no more secrets; no more faceless decision-makers.”

Last year, Gregory McKay, chief of the Arizona Department of Economic Security Office of Child Welfare Investigations, said 6,600 CPS hotline calls were “not investigated” between 2009 and 2013. Brewer quickly squeezed $5.8 million in emergency funds from the legislature, yanked CPS from the DES system, named a panel to recommend reforms and declared “I do not want to see the lights off at CPS” until it caught up with the backlog. 330 CPS staffers kept the lights burning.

Charles Flanagan, brought in from the Department of Juvenile Corrections to whip CPS/DCS into shape, is on the hook to finish the task by the end of Brewer’s term next January, though he says he wants to stay on board after that. By June 2014, 6,500 neglected cases were closed, with 567 at-risk children removed from their homes. No deaths were reported. “But the risk is still there,” Flanagan says, “because we’re still dealing with over 1,000 cases that have to be closed out.” The job got tougher in April, when Flanagan found 14,777 more case files that had been untouched for at least 60 days. Some may have been dormant for years.

The DCS staff comes from CPS. Flanagan blames a broken, poorly-funded system for CPS’ woes, not the people. “Please make this clear: The vast majority of the people that work for this agency are underpaid, undervalued, disrespected by the community by and large because they don’t understand what it is that they do,” Flanagan says. “And these are people who care, who come to work anyway in spite of all of these horrific things they have to deal with without a lot of support, and are doing twice the workload that we should be expecting of them.”

A small CPS budget gets part of the blame. Child-welfare services have “an awful and inverse relationship to the economy,” says State Representative Kate Brophy McGee (R), who served on Brewer’s reform panel. “They become casualties of the sustained and prolonged recession that we had.” Asked if her budget-slashing administration was at least partly responsible for the crisis, Brewer told indie capitol reporter Howard Fischer, “We probably are.”  

DCS, Brewer promises, will revamp training, add 142 caseworkers to reach full staffing of 1,320 by October, monitor hotline calls, streamline response, create new ways to assess risk and the need to intervene, and boost legal muscle. Flanagan’s vision: “We will protect children... by removing the right child at the right time and seeking permanency in an expedited manner, and we will have enough staff, and a system that is codified and followed, unlike what has happened up to this point, so that we are doing what we say we do and people can test us on that.”

For Brewer, a fixed system would also allow her governorship – which so frequently labored under a cloud of controversial issues, from Medicaid to immigration to gay rights – to ride into a bright, nonpartisan sunset. With her legacy in mind, she pressed legislators to trust her child-protective system reform plan, emphasizing her personal involvement in its design. “I think that I am dedicated. I am very motivated after dealing with this as an elected official for over 33 years,” Brewer said in an interview with Capitol Media Services. “We are through with Band-Aids, we are through with turning a blind eye.”

Booster Budget
$695.8 million: 2014 CPS budget
$73.7 million: 2014-15 CPS budget hike Brewer proposed in April
$59 million: Funding the legislature gave Brewer in April
$60 million: Additional funding approved in May’s special session
$833.9 million: Total 2014-15 budget for the new Department of Child Safety

Sources: Senate special-session bills 1001 and 1002, Governor’s office, Joint Legislative Budget Committee, National Association of Budget Officers.