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History repeats itself with caseload woes at CPS

A child plays on the floor of Memorial Hall at Steele Indian   School Park during a DEc. 3 public forum intended to solicit ideas on improving CPS amid revelations that more than 6,500 child abuse and welfare reports were illegally closed without an investigation.

A child plays on the floor of Memorial Hall at Steele Indian School Park during a DEc. 3 public forum intended to solicit ideas on improving CPS amid revelations that more than 6,500 child abuse and welfare reports were illegally closed without an investigation.

Ten years ago this week, Arizona lawmakers were on the verge of approving a law to strengthen Child Protective Services and ensure the agency investigates all cases of neglect and abuse.

A special legislative session ended on Dec. 13, 2003, when lawmakers agreed to provide an additional $21 million to hire more CPS caseworkers and increase pay to foster parents.

In a deal reached with Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Legislature required CPS to investigate 100 percent of the cases of neglect and abuse it received. The extra money was provided to help CPS meet the goal by reducing caseloads.

Now it’s clear the law didn’t fix CPS, observed Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert, the sponsor of the 2003 bill. About 6,500 cases have been classified as not investigated since 2009.

He said the problem isn’t the law, but a lack of enforcing it.

“Obviously, I cannot say the law has been followed if you have 6,000 (uninvestigated) cases… The law back in 2003 said you have to investigate each one of these cases, and that hasn’t been done,” Farnsworth said.

But the 2003 law was the first step toward uncovering the current problem, Farnsworth said. The legislation required all extremely serious conduct allegations to be investigated in cooperation with law enforcement and the county attorney.  Farnsworth took that a step further in a 2012 bill that created the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, which employs investigators who have been trained to understand law enforcement’s role in cases of criminal abuse or neglect.

The uninvestigated cases were discovered this year by a Phoenix police detective who was leading the office.

“(The OCWI) is a continuation of the concept started in 2003 — that the police would be brought in on criminal abuse cases,” Farnsworth said.

Been here before

Lawmakers are now grappling with many of the same issues and decisions that they were in 2003. For the few, like Farnsworth and Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix, who were in the Legislature a decade ago, it’s like déjà vu.

“It’s been 10 years and we have the exact same concerns and arguments being made in 2013 as in 2003,” Gallardo said.

“It’s a blast from the past,” Farnsworth observed.

In 2003, Napolitano originally requested roughly $35 million in supplemental funding to CPS, but when all was said and done, the Legislature approved considerably less — $21 million.

Gallardo said if Republicans had agreed to the full request, the agency might have been able to investigate the more than 6,000 complaints that have gone uninvestigated since 2009.

“If we got the $35 million 10 years ago, I have to wonder if we would have had the 6,000 uninvestigated cases. Would it have been that large of a number of cases that have fallen through the cracks? Would the investigators have been able to do a better job in investigating a lot of these cases?… It couldn’t have hurt,” he said.

Gallardo said money isn’t everything, but it’s a big part of the problem — and leads to problems with large caseloads and employee turnover in the agency. Budget cuts in recent years have only exacerbated the issue, and caused the agency to struggle, he said.

But Farnsworth disagreed with the idea that the problem at CPS is related to money. He said in many cases, CPS caseworkers have investigated the home, decided there is no reason to remove the child, and left. Later, he said, the children turn up dead.

He said interagency communication and ensuring that experienced law enforcement investigators check in on criminal cases pay dividends and save lives.

“We continue to hear those stories that come out (about) how many times CPS has been in the home when complaints have been filed and yet they continue to leave the child. That has nothing to do with money… Those stories have to do with the ability to recognize when criminal abuse is occurring,” Farnsworth said.

The approximately 6,500 uninvestigated cases, however, are different. No one looked into them at all.

An old idea renewed

A decade ago, lawmakers considered CPS legislation that would have split the agency from its umbrella department, the Department of Economic Security. Today, there are calls for the exact same thing.

Gallardo said he would like the Legislature to debate the idea, and maybe put the organization under the Department of Public Safety, if not turn it into its own department.

But Farnsworth said although he thinks protecting children from abuse is a core function of government, the idea of creating a new department probably wouldn’t go over well with many conservatives who believe in limited government.

“The concern historically has been that once you create an agency that stands alone, it becomes voracious in its appetite and it just expands, expands, expands. We’re just going to see this huge organization called CPS that is going to do more than deal with children that are abused,” he said.

While neither Gallardo nor Farnsworth were ready to commit to the idea, they agreed that it should be discussed — just as they did in 2003 when such a plan lacked the support it needed to become law.

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