Four years ago, Gov. Janet Napolitano called lawmakers into a special session to reform the state’s child welfare system following several high-profile cases of abuse and neglect, including children in cages and the beating death of a Mesa boy.
Now, Mesa and Tucson legislators are again tackling some of those very same issues, introducing a raft of bills to open CPS records and hearings, require CPS cooperation with police and prosecutors, and find missing children.
The Republican lawmakers also want to open state personnel files and make it easier to discipline rogue employees, saying they were shocked to learn, thanks to a subpoena, about the actions of some Tucson case managers.
The package of bills comes in response to the killings of three Tucson children who were known to CPS and whose parents are accused in their deaths.
But the familiar cycle — child dies, public outraged, elected officials react — has some advocates concerned the legislation could do more harm than good. And they say it fails to address the core problem of overburdened CPS case managers struggling to find limited services for families.
In her annual speech to lawmakers at the start of the legislative session last week, Napolitano called for more CPS caseworkers to reduce caseloads, which are above state standards. The governor’s budget, released Friday, includes $7.8 million to hire 78 new caseworkers next year.
‘BEEN THERE, DONE THAT’
Mesa Rep. Kirk Adams and Tucson Rep. Jonathan Paton say CPS failed to protect 5-year-old Brandon Williams and siblings Tyler and Ariana Payne, and that their deaths point to needed reforms.
More workers, they say, will not fix systemic problems within the agency.
“We’ve been there, done that,” Adams said. “Additional caseworkers is not a silver bullet.”
The most far-reaching bill, and by far the most controversial, would put county prosecutors in charge of CPS child-abuse investigations, including decisions about whether children should be reunited with their families or even be allowed to visit.
Adams said HB2455 is an attempt to replicate places like the Mesa Center Against Family Violence, where CPS and police are housed together.
But critics worry it would give prosecutors too much authority and unfairly punish or separate families needing help.
“CPS was created for a reason,” said Beth Rosenberg of the Children’s Action Alliance. “This bill is pretty radical. We have extremely serious concerns about it.”
Adams said the measure will need some work before it can get out of the House Government Committee, which he chairs. But he said the Tucson cases show CPS needs police involvement earlier and more often.
“If law enforcement isn’t going to get involved with crimes against children, who is?” he said. “This is important enough that we’ve got to get this right.”
BILL COMES AS A SUPRISE
The bill, discussed in Adams’ committee last week, came as a surprise to Ken Deibert, who oversees CPS as deputy director for the state Department of Economic Security.
Deibert has been working with Adams and Paton on their legislation, but wondered whether this one might overlap existing law and protocols set up between CPS and county prosecutors under Napolitano’s earlier reforms.
“We just want to take a real close look at it and what their intent is, what they’re hoping to accomplish,” he said.
Another bill would require caseworkers to file a missing person’s report on a child “at risk of serious harm” if they can’t find them. Under HB2599, police who come across the child would notify CPS.
In Brandon Williams’ case, police called to his home for a domestic disturbance saw him with bandages on his legs. They were unaware CPS had been trying to find the family, but wrote up a report. The next day, Brandon was dead. “Brandon Williams likely would be alive today had the paper report ... to CPS been electronic,” Adams said. “There’s no formal process for CPS to say, ‘We’re looking for this child.’”
It’s unclear, however, how “serious harm” would be defined or what law enforcement does with the child once they find him or her, Rosenberg said. And while the idea is a good one, she said, it could be too much for law enforcement to take on. In the CPS investigations unit alone, some 400 families a year can’t be found.
Newspapers went to court to get the CPS records in the Tucson children’s cases. Adams and Paton want easier access to records and open court hearings regarding CPS.
HB2454 would require the agency to more quickly release information in the case of a fatality or near-fatality, unless it could be shown that doing so would “cause a specific, material harm” to CPS or a criminal investigation.
HB2453: Allows public into dependency hearings
HB2454: Opens CPS records in fatality and near-fatality cases
HB2455: Puts prosecutors in charge of CPS cases involving criminal child abuse allegations
HB2594: Requires caseworkers to locate and abide by court orders
HB2595: Requires contractors to show services were provided before they can be paid
HB2599: Requires CPS to file missing person’s report on children at risk of “serious harm”
HCR2054: Asks voters to make state employee personnel files public