Child Protective Services investigated 37,674 cases of child abuse or neglect in the state of Arizona from April 1, 2004 through March 31, 2005. Of those, 514 were in Gila County.
CPS often gets a bad rap, said local unit supervisor Mary Meyers.
"I think that in this town we are doing a lot to improve our reputation and be real positive," Meyers said. "I think most of the agencies in town realize we are about putting the safety of children first."
CPS works with community agencies to keep children safe because, Meyers said, the resistibility for safety has to do with parents, the schools and the wider community.
Most children are not sent to foster care, Meyers said, unless it is determined they would be safer outside their home. If a child is placed in a licensed foster home, it can only be for 72 hours unless a dependency petition is filed in juvenile court.
The statewide goal of CPS is to reunify the family. Meyers has seen the value of family reunification in her 18 years as a social worker.
"Children are raised best by their parents," she said. "I know parents are sometimes very risky for placement of children, but children grow up better at home. If not in their own home, then in a family home. The state is not good at raising children and we shouldn't be doing that job."
"In Payson, I think we do a very good job of locating extended family for the children so that their culture and home life is pretty similar to what they have been used to in their parent's home. They can reunify faster if they are close to mom and dad and frequent visitation occurs."
A shortage of foster homes exists in the Rim Country, Meyers said. Placing a child in a city miles away adds stress because of transportation concerns. CPS contracts with AmeriPsych to meet transportation and supervised visitation needs.
"We do supervised visitations, parenting classes and things of that nature for families," said Alison Gregory, area supervisor for AmeriPsych. "What works the best, I think, is that we do a parenting class and then we supervise the visits. Then we can encourage and role model for the parents how to apply what they learned in parenting with the children."
Gregory's reports about supervised visits is entered into the state's "childs" database. CPS pulls information directly from that.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security states that parents are given a temporary custody notice if their children are removed. The notice includes "information about a preliminary protective hearing, obtaining an attorney, a meeting to be held, if a dependency petition is filed with the juvenile court and rights and responsibilities, services available and agencies to contact for assistance."
Case workers like Carolyn Werner stay in communication with the family throughout the process. Werner has spent the last five years of her career here in Payson.
She has seen many single mothers struggle raising children. The high cost of housing and low wages in Payson are often a stressful combination.
She keeps her cell phone glued to her ear during the workweek so parents can contact her.
"I've noticed that a lot of people don't have anchors," she said. "Some people don't have any support at all or sometimes the support they have is a negative support that takes them down a path that they are trying to get off."
Werner encourages creative activities that improve self-esteem in the mothers she meets.
Parents with self confidence and the ability to trust can handle difficult situations better, she said.
As she works with families, Werner gives them small goals that can be achieved because the more they achieve the higher they go.
"Many have wanted to be sober," Werner said. "To help them meet that goal, we have been there to transport them home, to assist them with housing and to visit them in their home once or twice a week."
She said she still hears from some adults that she helped get their life together so they could provide a good home environment for their children.
In her 14 years of social work, she has only had a couple of cases that have gone to an adoptive situation.
"I have gone into homes where the family is in shock, but welcomed me in," Meyers said. "I have also walked in on a gunfight between parents, with the SWAT team outside .... So what we walk into is anything. Most parents automatically figure we are going to take their children and are quite surprised when we don't."
Of the 18,663 cases of child abuse investigated between Oct. 1, 2004 and March 31, 2005, eight percent were substantiated. The Child Welfare Reporting Requirements obtained through the DES office said that after the investigation was closed, out-of-home services were provided to 706 families.
Meyers said she would rather see 100 false cases investigated than miss one case of child abuse.
Callers reporting child abuse may remain anonymous, but the report has more credibility if the person making it leaves their name and phone number, she said. Every report must be investigated.
"It is against the law for us to reveal to anyone the name of the reporting party," Meyers said. It does not even go into court records. "Even the police are not given the name of our source."
Report suspected child abuse or neglect by calling 1-888-SOS-CHILD (1-888-767-2445).
If CPS finds there is no abuse or the abuse is unverifiable, they offer to help, or refer them to other services in the community, such as Rim Guidance, for counseling or to Time Out, whatever is appropriate.
This feature is part of the Roundup's series on social services in the Rim Country.