Gov. Jan Brewer asked lawmakers Thursday to immediately approve nearly $60 million in cash to create a new child welfare agency and revamp how Arizona handles abuse and neglect complaints.
Brewer said the only way Arizona is ever going to get a handle on the problem is to wrest the program from the much larger Department of Economic Security and create new Department of Child Safety and Family Services. Brewer called the revamp long overdue.
“As we all know, our child welfare system has been beleaguered for decades, failing the vulnerable children it's supposed to be protecting,” she said at a press conference announcing next week's special session. And she said removing what had been CPS from the much larger Department of Economic Security is a “critically necessary reform.”
Brewer already took the first step of creating a separate division of DES headed by Charles Flanagan, but she needs legislative approval to set up a free-standing Cabinet-level agency run by someone who reports directly to her.
Flanagan was more blunt about the need for the change, saying the fact that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect complaints went uninvestigated — and undiscovered until last year — is a direct result of the "huge bureaucracy'' of DES. He said that's why child welfare needed to be “ripped ... from the bowels of DES” and put into a smaller agency with a higher profile.
“There will be no room for things like that to happen,” he said.
What the move also will take are dollars.
The agency currently gets about $711 million. Earlier this year lawmakers approved a $59 million boost for the new fiscal year that starts July 1. Brewer's $60 million request is on top of that.
But the governor's plan calls for more than just more cash to hire more caseworkers and support staff as well as provide bonuses for new caseworkers so they don't quit after a year, a situation that has resulted in a 28 percent turnover rate at what used to be Child Protective Services. Flanagan promised an entire culture change at the agency and more independent oversight to ensure there is no repeat of those uninvestigated cases.
The governor called lawmakers into a special session beginning Tuesday to consider the plan.
Other highlights of the package include:
- Funding a one-time cash infusion to wipe out the current backlog of nearly 15,000 cases of neglect and abuse which have gotten no attention in at least 60 days;
- Putting that money into services to help prevent abuse and reunite families once that backlog is wiped out, ideally by the end of the year;
- Revamping and speeding up hiring and training for new caseworkers to get them in the field quicker;
- Allowing non-emergency complaints of suspected abuse and neglect to be reported by alternative methods like email and through a web-based form;
- Setting up a separate investigations bureau to keep track of what is and is not being done -- and blow the whistle if complaints are not being properly handled.
Flanagan also wants the new agency to be able to hire its own in-house counsel, at least in part in his bid to make its operations more transparent to the public. Flanagan said some lawyers at the Attorney General's Office have taken a very conservative approach to what information federal and state laws allow to be made public about abuse and neglect complaints.
The plan got a general endorsement from Dana Naimark, president of the Children's Action Alliance whose organization for years has been at the forefront of criticizing how CPS handles complaints.
Naimark said she does not doubt that Brewer is sincere in her desire to fix the problem permanently. And she believes lawmakers next week will adopt pretty much what the governor wants.
“But it is just a beginning,” Naimark said after details of the plan were spelled out by Flanagan and John Arnold, the governor's budget director.
“The success doesn't only depend on what they adopt next week,” she said. “What happens next year and the year after that is absolutely critical.”
Naimark said that need to be vigilant will show up down the road, after the backlog is cleared up. She said that promise to shift the dollars into preventing abuse, versus funding for caseworkers to deal with problems that have occurred, will depend on ongoing public pressure on the new governor and the Legislature.
Brewer would not respond to a question of why these changes to the child welfare agency will resolve long-term problems any more than prior fixes debated and approved by legislators for decades. But Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, who was part of the task force that helped craft the plan, said this time it's different.
“Before when we were doing things, we were trying to patch and piecemeal and figure out what we can do to help it limp along,” she said.
“Right now we're talking about a complete not only reform,” Landrum Taylor continued. “But we're having a whole brand-new department that's just focusing on child safety.”
Flanagan said some changes already have been put in place, including some he said were simple fixes that just had not been done.
For example, he said, there was no caller ID on the phone system to report abuse and neglect. Flanagan said that means when calls got dropped — and he that amounted to one out of every four — there was no way for agency workers to know who to call back.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he believes most lawmakers will go along with Brewer's funding request despite its size. He said a lot of the funds are necessary to play “catch up” with abuse and neglect complaints for what has been an understaffed agency.
“But I think you'll see a very watchful eye about the way it's spent and if, in fact, we're getting improvements for the money over the next couple of years,” Kavanagh said.
The problem for lawmakers, he said, is that they are not experts in the field of child abuse and neglect.
“We have to take a lot on faith from the agency” about what is needed. “So it's difficult to second-guess what the governor's asked for.”