Child Protective Services would become a separate agency, with workers given greater authority to remove children from their homes under tougher abuse and neglect laws that place child safety above everything else.
Mothers of drug- or alcohol-exposed newborns could be found guilty of child abuse and lose their babies, and if a parent’s rights to one child are terminated they would then be terminated for any other children.
Court hearings and CPS records would be open, and police would be brought in to investigate cases of criminal abuse or neglect.
Judges would be prohibited from trying to reunify families if a child was the "victim of serious physical or emotional injury or if there is evidence of a chronic pattern of abuse or neglect," and parents would automatically lose legal rights to those children.
These and other provisions are contained in draft legislation that state Senate President Ken Bennett assigned as "homework" Wednesday for members of a new legislative committee charged with reforming CPS.
The draft bill, written by committee member and attorney Steve Twist, or some version of it could find its way into the legislative session that begins in January.
The committee, which is headed by Bennett, R-Prescott, and House Majority Leader Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, spent most of its first meeting hearing presentations from Tracy Wareing, an aide to Gov. Janet Napolitano, and Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley and one of his assistants.
Romley issued a report on CPS reform in March, and Napolitano’s advisory CPS commission issued its report in June. A response from the governor is expected later this month.
Members — including detectives, social service and medical experts and victims’ advocates — seemed nearly unanimous in support of a separate child welfare agency, dubbed the Department of Child Protection and Family Support in Twist’s legislation.
"We need to be able to protect those at the most risk, and we’re not doing that," said Twist, president of Voice for Crime Victims and a contributor to Romley’s report.
The mission of CPS is muddled by conflicting laws requiring both family reunification and child safety, Twist said.
Federal laws that muddied the waters have since been reformed and no longer are a barrier to state lawmakers rewriting Arizona statutes to ensure that child safety comes first, he said.
The definition and response to neglect also needs to be toughened, several committee members said.
"The worst cases of child abuse I’ve seen have been chronic neglect cases," said Dr. Kathryn Coffman, a pediatrician with Childhelp Children’s Center in Phoenix.
"If we’re going to look at the best interests of the child, we need to consider the child’s rights over the family’s rights," she said.
But Sen. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, urged committee members against a policy of "any doubt, take the kid out" as the answer to the child welfare system’s problems.
"We can’t just assume that we can remove the child and everything’s going to be fine," said Anderson, chairman of the Senate Family Services Committee and a member of the governor’s CPS advisory commission.
"Just removing the child from the family is automatically doing some harm," he said. "We’ve seen what happens in other states."
As the number of children placed in foster care grows, Anderson said, costs increase and more pressure is placed on an already overburdened system, including foster families and CPS workers.