Jun 112014

By Tammy Gray

When Governor Jan Brewer signed legislation May 29 creating the new Department of Child Safety to replace Child Protective Services (CPS), an entirely new system of receiving, investigating and handling child welfare complaints was instituted.

The new department will stand alone, with no ties to any other state agency. The former CPS agency was under the auspices of the Department of Economic Security (DES), which is responsible for a wide range of services, including aging and adult services, medical benefits and food assistance, child support enforcement, developmental disabilities assistance, and employment and rehabilitative services.

Under the new system, the Department of Child Safety will focus solely on child welfare. In addition to investigating allegations of abuse, it will offer in and out-of-home support, adoption, foster care, guardianship, and emergency and residential placement services.

Although the main function will be the same as the former CPS agency, to protect Arizona’s children, the department is expected to operate differently. A reporting system is being created to monitor and ensure that every case is reviewed and handled properly. Citizens will be able to file reports by phone, online, via email and through a designated hotline. The Attorney General’s office will be responsible for hiring an independent auditor to ensure that cases are being handled properly.

The bill that created the new department also establishes a community advisory committee that is charged with making “recommendations to improve the ability of the department to increase the safety of children, respond to child maltreatment, and assure the well-being of and timely permanency for children that are referred to and involved in the child welfare system.” The committee will also work to “create enhanced collaboration among state, local, community, public and private stakeholders.”

Gov. Brewer noted in an announcement, “With this historic legislation, we begin to reverse a longstanding crisis and implement long-lasting change. Through necessary resources, safeguards, checks and balances, and oversight, as well as a clearly defined core mission of child safety, there will be no room for excuses, secrets or faceless decision makers. There will be no more mixed messages and competing priorities. Finally, Arizona will have a child safety system with the capability and culture to protect our children.”

The first priorities of the agency will be to review the nearly 6,500 cases closed without investigation by CPS, and to work through the backlog of approximately 15,000 cases. The new agency will start out with a budget of approximately $60 million in new funding and $760 million in funds transferred from DES.

While politicians from both parties generally agreed that CPS reform was necessary, they disagreed over funding levels. Democrats called for a higher budget, while Republicans sought to limit spending. House Minority Whip Eric Meyer (D-Paradise Valley) blamed a lack of funding for many of the failures of CPS.

“For too long, Child Protective Services has had to make do with emergency funding after years of budget cuts to preventative and support services. This set the agency up for failure. With fewer resources going to prevention and support, more families fell into crisis and the child-safety caseload in the state began increasing at a rate that the agency could not handle,” Meyer said. “Moving forward, we must prioritize resources for caseworkers, and it is critical that we fund preventative and support services. We should also increase accountability and transparency measures. By doing this, we can address the nearly 15,000-case backlog the state still has. Additionally, we can begin to help children before they become victims of abuse or neglect, which will eventually reduce the caseload.”

Democrats had called for a total of $193 million in new funding that would have included substance abuse treatment programs for parents and caregivers, as well as childcare assistance. That total was reduced to $60 million in the state’s final budget.

Representatives of both parties agreed, however, that the new agency is a step in the right direction and that it will take some time to see the results of the changes.

Meyer noted, “It took years for the situation to develop and the reforms will not happen overnight.”

Gov. Brewer remarked, “Certainly, a system that has been broken for decades will take time to repair. Implementing true and lasting reform in any agency, especially one with such a vital mission and vulnerable population, will take time. But for the first time in state history, we are on a clear path to a successful child safety system that will not fail in its mission.”