Faced with a child abuse budget scandal, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) offered an odd remedy: Let’s take money away from early childhood education and support to investigate child abuse and neglect.
Now, that might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s just the latest strange twist in a near-obsession among legislative Republicans with defunding the voter-approved First Things First.
Kavanagh has proposed using about a quarter of the tobacco-tax money going to provide early childhood education to hire additional Child Protective Service caseworkers. The Legislature also tried to use the First Things First money to balance the budget during the recession, but voters rejected that idea by a 70 percent margin.
Kavanagh says the early childhood money would help solve the CPS problem, although it will require voter approval.
Kavanagh’s proposal comes in response to revelations that Child Protective Services simply dismissed some 6,400 reports of abuse and neglect, in addition to letting the backlog of cases not investigated within the two-month window allowed to build up to 10,000 cases or more.
Caseworkers have caseloads about 80 percent higher than the national standard, which contributes to an annual turnover among caseworkers and investigators of nearly 40 percent. Much of the backlog developed when stressed out, poorly paid CPS investigators quit, since they each carry an average of about 100 cases.
CPS has routinely reported to the Legislature the number of cases classified as “not investigated,” but the governor and legislative leaders last year nonetheless professed themselves shocked when agency whistle blowers called attention to the routine practice of dismissing out of hand thousands of cases every year.
In the meantime, the number of reports has increased steadily. Calls to the child abuse hotline jumped from 17,500 for six months in 2011 to 22,100 between October 2012 and March of 2013. Meanwhile, the number of children in out-of-home care has also hit record levels.
The agency’s annual Child Fatality Rate Report found Gila County suffered the second highest child fatality rate in the state in 2012, trailing only Santa Cruz County.
Statewide, the report showed that 15 children died of abuse or neglect in 2012 even after Child Protective Services had opened a case.
Last year, Calandra Balas, of Payson, died in a car crash as her father fled from police a year after CPS had failed to remove her from her father’s custody after he was arrested on charges of domestic violence involving his girlfriend.
The Child Fatality Review report included statistics on the deaths of 854 children in the state, an increase of 2 percent over 2011. The team of researchers concluded that at least a third of those deaths could have been prevented, including 43 homicides and 32 deaths involving firearms.
Other major categories included natural causes (63 percent), accidents (22 percent) suicides (4 percent), homicides (5 percent) and either undetermined or pending (6 percent).
The report concluded “Child fatalities due to maltreatment decreased slightly to 70 deaths in 2012 from 71 deaths in 2011. Eighty percent of children who died due to maltreatment were less than 5 years old. In 61 maltreatment deaths, the perpetrator was the child’s mother or father. Substance use was associated with 47 maltreatment deaths. In 2011, 15 of the deaths had a case open with a child protective services agency at the time of death; in 2012, 11 deaths had an open case with a child protection services agency at the time of death. Additionally, mandatory reporting of child maltreatment cases increased nine percent in 2012 from 2011.”
The Legislature cut funding for child welfare sharply in the face of the recession, as state revenues plunged. For instance, between 2008 and 2011 the Legislature cut $33 million in CPS funding.
Gov. Brewer has pushed to restore CPS funding in the past two years, with an added $46 million last fiscal year and an extra $58 million this fiscal year. However, the Department of Economic Services has asked for an additional $65 million in fiscal 2015 to add 444 child welfare workers, including 50 more CPS investigators.
Kavanagh’s proposal would provide about $45 million by diverting money from tobacco taxes to CPS that would otherwise go to First Things First, which provides preschool and other services to low-income infants and toddlers.
The voters approved First Things First funding by a wide margin in 2006.
Lawmakers tried to sweep the funds in 2009, but the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature couldn’t redirect the 80-cents-a-pack tax imposed by the voters for early childhood education to other purposes without the approval of the voters.
Lawmakers tried again to divert the First Things First money in 2010, this time by putting a measure on the ballot that would give them the authority to divert about $125 million annually. The tax had accumulated about $325 million at that point, used to support preschool programs, childcare scholarships for low-income families, home visits from a social worker to help at-risk families and other programs. The program provided money to replace other state childcare funds, which protected some $170 million in matching federal money to provide daycare for low-income families.
Voters in 2010 rejected the diversion of First Things First money on a vote of 70 percent to 30 percent.
CHILD ABUSE DEATHS
(in Arizona in 2012)
70: Total deaths in 2012
15: Had an open CPS case file in 2012
11: Had an open CPS case file in 2011
61: At hands of mother or father
47: Involved substance abuse
80 percent of children who died were less than five years old
Child Abuse Statistics
17,500 Child Abuse Hotline calls Oct.-March 2011-12
22,100 Child Abuse Hotline calls Oct-March 2012-13
6,400 cases classified “not investigated”
10,000 backlogged cases not investigated within two months of report