Gov. Jan Brewer responded forcefully this week to a spreading crisis spawned by ignored reports of child abuse and neglect with a proposal to upgrade Child Protective Services into an independent agency whose director serves in the governor’s cabinet.
The proposal to take CPS out of the Department of Economic Security comes in the wake of reports that the understaffed agency in the past several years set aside some 6,400 reports as “not investigated” while allowing the backlog of cases slated for investigation to grow to more than 10,000.
Gov. Brewer said, “It is evident that our child welfare system is broken, impeded by years of structural and operational failures.
“It breaks my heart and makes me angry. Enough with uninvestigated reports of abuse and neglect. Enough with the lack of transparency. And enough with the excuses.”
The proposal during the governor’s State of the State address on Monday drew praise from many legislative leaders, including House Speaker Andy Tobin —who is also campaigning for the Republican nomination to make a run against Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who represents Southern Gila County.
Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson) supports the proposal.
“CPS is under the authority of the executive branch of our government, and as such the governor is quite within her abilities to move the department to a cabinet level position. Do I support this move? Absolutely, I’m just surprised the governor didn’t act sooner. I’d like to point out that in January 2013 the Legislature met in Special Session to provide emergency funding to CPS for additional staff. It is my observation that DES may be too highly centralized and that the CPS program might be best served if we funded CPS activities from the state to the local level.”
State Sen. Chester Crandell, whose district includes Gila County, said, “Setting up CPS this way is probably something that should happen. However, I’m not sure it was done the right way. I think we need to wait and see how this new proposal looks before we start throwing more money at the problem.”
Gov. Brewer has already moved to implement the plan, which will ultimately require legislative approval. She signed an executive order that abolished the Division of Children, Youth and Families, which includes CPS, foster care, adoption and other children’s programs. She shifted all those functions over to a new Child Safety Division, under the direction of Charles Flanagan, the director of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.
Flanagan headed up a multi-agency emergency team that has spent the past two months reviewing the 6,500 cases CPS had previously classified as “not investigated.” So far, the team has reviewed about half of those cases. In those re-examined case, about 400 children have been removed. Most of those had already been removed as a result of a second report of abuse or neglect. About 69 were removed after teams revived the buried reports.
The Legislature cut CPS funding during the recession, although the agency already had caseloads about 77 percent greater than the national standard and an annual turnover rate approaching 40 percent.
The number of reports of child abuse and neglect has increased steadily in the last several years — and the number of children in out-of-home foster care has reached record levels. CPS often doesn’t have licensed foster care homes in which to place children removed from dangerous homes, especially in many rural counties like Gila County.
Both Speaker Tobin and House Appropriations chairman John Kavanagh expressed support for Gov. Brewer’s proposal. Rep. Kavanagh has previously suggested providing new money for CPS by taking money away from First Things First, an initiative to provide early childhood education funds for things like preschool and family support — although that proposal would require approval by the voters.
Rep. Barton favored such a shift. “Diverting funds from First Things First is an excellent idea for a number of reasons. First Things First was designed to be ‘a resource for the children’ and, utilizing $45 million from their ‘parking lot funds’ would go directly to the benefit of the children of Arizona. Everyone is aware that First Things First receives more revenues than they are able to expend in any given year. As a result, there are multiple hundreds of millions of dollars in surplus.”
Sen. Crandell said he would also support taking money away from First Things First to provide added funding for CPS. “I would vote for it.”
He also favored Barton’s proposal to shift more control over CPS investigations to the county level. “I think we should look at what some other states have done. Move the operation to county or districts closer to the people and maybe contract out some services.”
The Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate said they hadn’t received enough information from the governor to understand the impact of the proposal. Republicans hold such big majorities in the House and Senate that they rarely consult Democrats on legislative proposals and rarely even schedule committee hearings on bills proposed by Democrats.
State politics remains in suspension in part because Gov. Brewer hasn’t yet declared whether she plans to run again, with the primaries approaching in August. Some competing candidates say she’s already served her constitutionally limited two terms, since she filled in the remainder of Gov. Janet Napolitano’s term. Brewer insists she’s only been elected in her own right once.
Nonetheless, a crowd of candidates has already filed to run in the August Republican primary. Declared candidates include Secretary of State Ken Bennett, State Treasurer Doug Ducey, attorney Christine Jones, state Sen. Al Melvin, former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Mesa Mayor Scott Smith. The only major candidate on the Democratic side is Fred DuVal, former chair of the Arizona Board of Regents.
Rep. Barton said fixing CPS remains a high priority, but that doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot more money. “Our children deserve more than they were receiving. Is the answer more money? I’m not sure. It may be that the structural issues inherent to DES are of such a nature that simply spending more money won’t fix the problem. We have to sort that out, just because the director has asked for additional resources isn’t the same as what is necessary to address the problems. But if a little more money can help to really fix some of the problems at CPS, then I fully support it, and that’s why I think diverting a portion of funds from First Things first should be considered.”