Knowing all the while that it’s impossible to prevent child abuse and neglect, hundreds of the state’s top child welfare experts have spent the better part of four months trying.
What they’ve concocted in a second-floor conference room at the state Capitol, they hope, will be a blueprint for improving state Child Protective Services and the overall health and well-being of Arizona’s children.
For parents, such as Kimberly Hughes of Chandler, details about subcommittees to the Governor’s CPS Advisory Commission are little more than background noise. What really matters is the help that her Healthy Families caseworker has provided since the birth of her twins, Gabriel and Ari.
"Megan was the first one who said, ‘Are you OK?’ " said Hughes, a single mother of three. "She knew that I would rather die than let anything happen to them. But she could see I was cracking up."
The $5 million Healthy Families child abuse prevention program would be eliminated under the Legislature’s budget. Gov. Janet Napolitano keeps the program intact in her spending plan.
"Parents are working, they’re struggling, they’re battling. And then they’re taking care of their kids on top of it," Hughes said. "A lot of times, the government will spend a lot of money on problems later."
The CPS commission is designed to improve all aspects of child welfare, including child abuse and neglect and finding permanent homes for foster children. Seven subcommittees have developed hundreds of recommendations for the governor’s panel to consider in preparing a report, which is due June 30.
"I think this is one of the first times when representatives from all the different places that kids touch were in the same room," said Helene Abrams, head of the county’s juvenile public defender’s office and a subcommittee member. "If you have the big picture, then you can focus on the most important things." The recommendations range from broad policy statements and wish lists to specific changes in state law.
They begin with testing newborns for drug exposure and end with health coverage for teenagers aging out of foster care, weaving in and out of juvenile court, the mental health system, public schools, churches and neighborhoods.
They are drafted with the knowledge that a growing number of children are being removed from their homes and placed in foster care, nearly one-fourth of CPS caseworkers quit their jobs every four months, and the Legislature is considering cuts in child abuse prevention, family preservation, foster care, adoption and substance abuse programs.
Commission members meeting Friday to consider the recommendations acknowledged that despite all the hard work, passionate discussion and good intentions, it could all amount to nothing if the plan isn’t implemented.
"We’ve all been on a lot of task forces and commissions. . . . And it hasn’t affected one child," said Carol Kamin, executive director of the Children’s Action Alliance. "I want us to be accountable. I want us to be able to say that because of our work, the lives of some children are better."
The governor created the commission in January, soon after saying publicly that protecting children should be CPS’ top priority and caseworkers should "err on the side of the child." Federal and state laws put the emphasis on keeping families together, which the governor said gave caseworkers a mixed message.
In the first three months of the year, the number of dependency petitions filed in court to make children wards of the state has nearly doubled in Maricopa County, from 191 in 2002 to 381 this year.
That’s as it should be, those who care for abused and neglected kids say.
"We’re still seeing horrendous cases, and the goal in some of these cases is still to reunify with parents," said Chris Scarpati, director of the East Valley Child Crisis Center. "Err on the side of the child — I can’t imagine anybody who’s been in the trenches who isn’t going to agree with that."
Scarpati said there are several reasons why more children are coming into foster care, including the sagging economy and a new emphasis on removing children in drug cases. It’s straining the system, and she worries that things will only get worse if prevention and drug abuse programs are cut.
"We can’t preserve families and take away programs that preserve families at the same time," she said.
Scarpati’s subcommittee on structure recommended carving CPS and other children’s programs into their own Cabinet-level agency as a way to improve collaboration since many children receive multiple services. That idea, which has been considered in years past, drew mixed response from the commission.
"I think that will only delay and impede our efforts," said Leslie Schwalbe, deputy director for the Department of Health Services.
A few themes emerge, but most would cost money: CPS workers should be paid more and trained better, agencies that serve children should collaborate better, and prevention programs should be funded better.
"It’s really shameful — the lack of support for our caseworkers," said Mary Lou Hanley, who oversees CPS as an assistant director for the Department of Economic Security. "What we do for them is minuscule."
Starting salary for CPS workers is $25,526, their turnover rate is about 24 percent, and their caseloads are at least 25 percent above national child welfare standards.
Sen. Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, said caseworkers should have at least a bachelor’s degree in a social work-related field. Currently, they are only required to have college degrees.
"We have to be very concerned about who’s doing CPS investigations out there," said Rios, a family counselor and former CPS administrator. "Because this is what gets children in trouble, it’s what gets CPS in trouble and it’s what gets the state of Arizona in trouble."
Napolitano has hired Tracy Wareing to implement the commission’s recommendations. Wareing is chief counsel for the CPS division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. The commission meets again June 27.
Some key recommendations from the seven subcommittees of the Governor’s CPS Advisory Commission. Members include state government administrators, legislators, child welfare advocates, a pediatrician, two judges and two prosecutors:
• Remove Child Protective Services from the state Department of Economic Security. Establish a Department of Children and Families to include portions of state health and juvenile justice agencies.
• Create an Arizona Child Safety Hotline that operates independently from CPS.
• Recruit and train clergy and others who work with children to respond to hotline calls.
• Amend state law to include infant exposure to drugs or alcohol as grounds for neglect, and expand the definition of emotional abuse.
• Allow public and private employers to check the state child abuse registry for a history of abuse or neglect if a person applies to work with children or vulnerable adults.
• Reduce caseloads for CPS caseworkers, expand training, increase salaries and require master’s degree in social work for all supervisors.
• Require joint investigations between police and CPS caseworkers in serious abuse or neglect cases.
• Require parents to participate in services or risk losing their children.
• Ensure that children in juvenile justice system receive mental health services, and that health records follow foster children.
• Seek additional federal funding for foster children, juvenile court and related programs.