Gov. Janet Napolitano said Thursday that new questions about the state's ability to protect children from abuse illustrates what she has claimed for months — Child Protective Services needs a clear mission set in law and more money to hire and keep caseworkers.
Napolitano said she's not going to rush her reform proposals, though, despite mounting criticism of the state agency in light of two new child abuse cases in which CPS had previous involvement with the families. The governor will stay with her schedule to release recommendations for change on Sept. 8, and she might wait until January to take her cause to the Legislature.
The governor spent about 20 minutes answering questions Thursday about the future of CPS during her weekly briefing with reporters. Napolitano said she was appalled to hear about two Phoenix 5-year-old twin boys who police say were locked in cages by their parents and about a 13-year-old Mesa girl whose mother, police say, encouraged her to have sex with men in exchange for money and drugs.
CPS had received a complaint of possible abuse of the twins four years earlier, and the agency briefly placed the Mesa girl in a shelter in July until her mother was released from jail.
"Clearly, we are missing something," Napolitano said. In late July, a task force appointed by Napolitano issued a list of proposed reforms in response to earlier cases where it appeared CPS failed to act. Then, Napolitano conducted three public hearings around the state to hear other suggestions as she decides which proposals to embrace.
She made it clear Thursday, however, that she wants state statutes revised to make protecting children the agency's highest priority.
"If you open up the law book, and read how the Legislature has defined the CPS mission, it's focused on keeping families together," Napolitano said. "There are many times when keeping the family together is safe for the child and is in the best interest of the child. But there are times when it is not. My articulation is protect the child first, always act in the best interest of the child. At some point, the Legislature is going to have to act."
State Sen. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, said CPS caseworkers appear to be more reluctant now to remove children from troubled homes because of past scrutiny. In 2001 and 2002, Anderson participated in several closed-door reviews of cases in which the agency seemed to be unnecessarily tearing families apart.
"But there is a strong element the other way," Anderson said. "Right now, based on the last month's headlines, it looks like we're off and we need to move more into taking the kids out sooner."
Anderson agreed with Napolitano that the Legislature must find some way to raise salaries and to fund better training of field workers, despite the state's significant budget problems. That would help to reduce the "pendulum swing" of removing children too quickly and then not acting aggressively enough, Anderson said.