State lawmakers are moving to radically redefine the role of Child Protective Services into an agency that primarily looks for crimes.
The House Health and Human Services Committee voted 6-3 on Wednesday to make protection of children the sole primary purpose of CPS. The agency would no longer also focus on preserving youngsters with their families when possible.
Potentially more significant, it requires CPS workers to do what law enforcement or prosecutors direct in any cases where there is probable cause the child has been the victim of a crime.
Rep. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, said that will turn a simple complaint of a woman who left kids at home alone to work to provide food for the family into a law enforcement matter, rather than allowing CPS to find ways to help get new services for the family. The net result, he said, would be to "criminalize poverty."
But Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, who crafted the language, said the change of focus is necessary to ensure that CPS recognizes that its prime directive is to protect children. He said the other goals outlined in existing law have led to policies that run counter to that and end up undermining a youngster's rights as a crime victim.
And he said those other goals have to be repealed "because we're getting dead kids," a reference in part to the deaths in the last few years of three Tucson children who were supposed to be protected, or at least monitored, by CPS.
Paton's bill was reviewed by the House panel because the Senate, focused on the budget, is not yet considering individual members. Rep. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, agreed to sponsor HB2374.
The legislation is the latest in what has been an ongoing debate over what constitutes the best interests of the child.
At one point, the focus was to preserve families whenever possible, providing counseling and other services. In the last few years, though, that focus has moved in the direction of erring on the side of protecting the safety of the child when there is any question about leaving the youngster in the home.
This measure moves farther in that direction, looking at complaints of child abuse and neglect as crimes.
But Beth Rosenberg, who lobbies for Children's Action Alliance, said the measure, as crafted, will end up harming children.
She cited both the requirements for CPS to do only what police and prosecutors direct as well as provisions that limit when CPS can question children. All that, Rosenberg said, will slow efforts to provide permanent placement for children, whether back with their own families or in adoptive homes, and instead result in more children being placed in - and remaining longer - in foster care.
Murphy, however, said he believes the CPS system, as it exists, spends too much time looking at options and not enough time focused on making a decision.
"Children have languished in foster care for two and three years without a clear-cut decision of either the child is well-served to go home because the parents have gotten their act together, or it's not going to happen and we need to get the child into a permanent, loving, adoptive home," he said.
"They're in this no-man's land in between," said Murphy, who is a foster parent. "That does not serve them well."
Paton defended the provision that allows prosecutors and not caseworkers direct how complaints of child neglect and abuse are handled.
"Prosecutors have a right, in my opinion ... to determine if something is going to hurt their investigation or not," he said.
Murphy said sometimes a caseworker would ask what could be considered a leading question, one that might get a false answer from a child seeking to please the adult. The result, he said, is that might make prosecutors unable to use those statements and bring a case against an abuser.
But Deputy Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer said prosecutors should not have the responsibilities that Paton's legislation wants to place on them.
"It is not our job to tell Child Protective Services what it should do in any individual case," Mayer said. "It's really not our role."
Beyond that, Mayer noted that CPS has been sued in cases where mistakes have been made and a child ends up injured or dead. She said this would open the door to naming prosecutors as defendants in these cases.
Mayer, who said much of her career has been spent prosecuting those who commit crimes against children, said she does appreciate the efforts being made to "level the playing field" more in the direction of victims.
Paton said the legislation is closer to what he originally wanted last year when he introduced a series of bills to reform CPS.
The bills that did become law last year include:
Opening up the records of investigations when a child is murdered or nearly killed because of abuse or neglect;
Requiring open court hearings in cases where the state wants to take away someone's child unless there is good reason to close them;
Altering how CPS deals with allegations of criminal conduct and works with law enforcement and prosecutors;
Giving the public access to the disciplinary records of all state employees, including CPS;
Mandating that CPS workers inform police when a child is believed to be missing and at risk of harm;
Forcing CPS employees to promptly obtain copies of existing court orders on child custody and abide by them.