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Details of new child protection agency revealed in draft of bill

UA new department of child protection may grant police powers to staff investigating child fatalities and create a wide-ranging, easily accessible database of information relating to children’s safety and welfare.

A draft copy of legislation to create the new agency obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times reveals the early stages of lawmakers’ and executive staffs’ efforts to reshape how child safety cases are investigated and family services are administered in Arizona.

Dated Feb. 14, the legislation is the first known draft of a bill that a working group organized by Gov. Jan Brewer hopes to have ready for the Legislature to consider by early May.

Brewer announced in her State of the State address the she’d signed an executive order abolishing Child Protective Services with the intent to detach the troubled agency from the Department of Economic Security.

Lawmakers and child safety advocates stressed that the bill is in its infancy – for now, it includes scant details on matters such as the new department’s organizational structure. Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, who serves on the governor’s work group, said meetings at this juncture are being used to gather ideas and begin to shape the agency’s purpose.

“The intent is to establish or state as clearly as we can what the legislative intent is,” the Phoenix Republican said. “While it may seem like the simplest part of the whole thing, it’s the key to the whole thing, to get the mission statement correct.”

Dana Wolfe Naimark, president of the Children’s Action Alliance, said some vagueness in the draft may be by design.

“We think it is very important to revisit the statute and to set the parameters the organization and the oversight of the agency,” Naimark said. “At the same time, we think it’s important to set it up in a way that allows the agency to learn from and use best practices as they develop the protocols and all the strategies that they’re going to use.”

Brophy McGee said the work group has already discussed two to three drafts of legislation, and that it’s the work groups intent “to develop legislation that is consensus in nature, that everybody agrees with, that everybody feels they are involved and invested in.”

The bill does include some indication of the direction Charles Flanagan – the governor’s appointee to head the new Division of Child Safety and Family Services, reporting directly to her – may want to take.

Chief among those is a measure to give peace officer authority to persons investigating child fatalities – a power that lawmakers made sure to limit in 2012.

Investigators from the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, which may be part of the new agency, would gain peace officers’ powers in two instances: if a local law enforcement officer asked for the office’s assistance in the course of their own investigation of a child fatality, or if the office chose to investigate a child fatality on their own after police concluded their own investigation.

Since its creation in 2012, OCWI has employed some investigators who have been trained to understand law enforcement’s role in cases of criminal abuse or neglect. But the investigators lack the legal authorities provided to police, and some argue that granting such powers would make OCWI investigations more effective.

“It’s an ask, or a recommendation, on the part of OCWI, very narrowly tailored to dealing with child fatalities where the local jurisdictions don’t have the manpower or resources to investigate,” Brophy McGee said

She said that the fact that police powers are included in the draft does not mean the working group has decided to grant the office’s request.

Senate Minority Leader Anna Tovar, D-Phoenix, said she has concerns about the proposal and worries that in some cases, a police presence in an investigation could discourage children from talking with investigators.

“We need to make sure that the caseworkers have the proper tools and guidance because the caseworkers are the ones who are professionally trained, have gone to school to learn how to best manage and treat the child,” Tovar said.

Among the powers granted Flanagan would be the creation of a new “child-based tracking system” would be developed to provide access to “all relevant information relating to an abused, neglected or abandoned child.”

The working group appears intent on replacing CHILDS, the database tracking CPS cases that has experienced glitches for years, leaving cases unresolved and drawing criticism from lawmakers and agency officials.

The governor’s proposed budget includes an initial $10 million appropriation to DES to replace the database and recommends an additional $30 million over the next two years to complete the new database.

Tovar said she knows the legislation is a “work in progress,” but said she hopes future drafts will reflect a greater commitment to intervention services for children and families – the sort of child and family welfare programs that the Legislature cut funding for during the recession.

Senate Democrats also want the governor’s working group to open its meetings to more community leaders in the child welfare fields and to CPS caseworkers.

“This should be an open process where people should be able to present their professional opinions, and I truly feel right now the task group is lacking that professional (element),” Tovar said. “You don’t have a single case worker; you don’t have anyone on there that does this on a day in day out basis.”

Flanagan and his staff were hesitant to comment on the draft, and said more recent drafts could have altered the initial copy obtained by the Capitol Times.

“I know there is a group that’s been working at least once a week off of the draft, so I imagine it’s changed quite a bit,” said Jennifer Bowser, spokeswoman for Flanagan. “It’s definitely a work in progress.”

Not mentioned in the draft is a transition of CPS workers to at-will employment, an effort Tovar said is being considered by the work group and one she’d be opposed to. And Tovar said she hopes future drafts will address replacing millions of dollars in cuts made to child safety and family interventions services made in 2009.

“I look forward to seeing updated versions and participating in the actual drafting of particular issues,” she added.

Brewer announced in her state of the state the she’d signed an executive order abolishing CPS, with the intent to detach the troubled agency from the Department of Economic Security.

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