Lawmakers anxious about the prospect of spending tens of millions of dollars or more on child safety in an upcoming special session have their doubts — for a reason.
The Legislature has increased the budget for Child Protective Services by more than $240 million since 2008, and by $169.4 million in the past three years alone, according to information from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
Despite the commitment to provide more funding, a division with a $690.7 million budget was deemed too far gone to fix by Gov. Jan Brewer in January. She shut the agency and established a temporary child safety department reporting directly to her.
Lawmakers had hoped the extra money would help solve the crippling errors that jeopardized the safety of thousands of Arizona’s most vulnerable children. So far, that hasn’t happened.
“When you think about it, they have put a lot of money into this agency and have not seen results. And that’s problematic,” said Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, a Phoenix Republican who served on the CARE Team that investigated failures at CPS.
More money was added in the latest spending plan adopted by the Legislature, and the CPS budget now stands at $751.6 million for fiscal 2015. That easily eclipses spending levels prior to two years of recession-era cuts to the state agency that saw its budget reduced to $448.9 million in fiscal 2010. But even after years of more spending, the cries from child safety advocates and employees within the agency remain the same — it’s not enough.
Advocates such as the Arizona Children’s Action Alliance are asking for roughly $10 million more to restore cuts to the state’s child care subsidies. State funding for child care for working-poor families has been cut by $86.3 million since fiscal 2009, according to the organization.
Five CPS employees fired in the wake of the agency’s uninvestigated case scandal said no one should have lost their jobs even though more than 6,500 cases were labeled “NI” for not investigated as the agency struggled to keep up with its caseload. The real culprit behind the agency’s undoing is the state’s failure to provide the necessary funds for CPS workers to do the job they’re tasked to do, the employees said.
The recent crisis came in a year when lawmakers provided funding for 342 new caseworkers in fiscal 2014, according to JLBC.
The Legislature has added funding for 533 new positions for CPS in the past 18 months, which includes emergency appropriations to the fiscal 2013 and 2014 budgets. While not all the new positions have been filled, there is money for 446 new caseworkers, 48 new staffers for the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, five additions to records retention staff and 34 new staffers on the CPS legal team.
The additional spending for new hires and other CPS fixes appropriated for fiscal 2015 totals $58.6 million.
So how much is enough?
“The funding is going to be the million or the multi-million dollar question,” said Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler.
As lawmakers prepare to meet to create a new state agency to investigate claims of child abuse and neglect, the “how much” question remains the biggest unknown left for a working group of lawmakers and Capitol staffers. A special session to officially create teh new agency is expected to take place later this month or in June.
A byzantine structure
Brophy McGee, a member of the work group, said more funding is inevitably necessary, but acknowledged that is a difficult sell to a Legislature that’s already agreed to pour millions of dollars into efforts to fix child abuse and neglect issues.
“I think the key is to be able to show what that money will do,” she said. “At this point, especially with this agency, we need to know what we’re spending and where we’re spending.”
Figuring that out has been a struggle for the group with the delicate task of formally severing the functionality of CPS, and the mechanisms that fund it, from the Department of Economic Security, which originally provided oversight of the child safety agency.
A “byzantine and complicated structure” of state and federal funding is intertwined within DES, and must be carefully plucked apart to ensure that no money is compromised in the creation of a new agency, Brophy McGee said.
John Arnold, the governor’s budget director, has been working on separating the funding to carry over as much of the CPS budget tethered within DES as possible to the new agency.
Beyond that, lawmakers face the challenge of coming up with a way to eradicate one of the biggest problems CPS faces — an ever-growing backlog of unfinished cases. After declining in 2013 and most of 2014, the backlog has surged back up to 12,101 cases as of January, according to data provided by the Children’s Action Alliance.
“If you can get caught up, then all you have to do is maintain,” said Mesnard. The problem, however, is “we may have hired enough workers to maintain, but maybe not enough to catch up.”
Years of catching up to do
Even with funding for 533 new positions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that staffing levels will increase, Mesnard said. The agency has struggled with a high turnover rate, and although some lawmakers report that morale has improved since new director Charles Flanagan took the helm in January, the agency has months if not years of catching up to do in order to hire replacement caseworkers for all the vacated positions.
“As quick as they were hiring them, they were leaving,” Brophy McGee said.
New hires must also take time to be trained, a process that the work group is hoping to speed up by creating a structure similar to a police academy for preparing caseworkers to investigate abuse and neglect cases.
The work group is still waiting for the agency’s staff to provide more information about which cases are left in the backlog, which includes open investigations, in-home and out-of-home cases.
Knowing more details about each case, such as how long it may take to close, will allow lawmakers to better devise a dollar amount for how much it will cost to eliminate the backlog.
“With the backlogs, you could be dealing with a case that’s had everything done and just needs to be closed,” Brophy McGee said. “It’s just a very wide variable of where are we on it.”
A one-time infusion
Lawmakers such as Senate President Andy Biggs have been adamant about wanting more information before they decide once more to increase funding for child safety in Arizona.
The Gilbert Republican had legislation that would have provided $250,000 for an external audit of CPS vetoed by Brewer, who argued that the topic should be a part of discussions in the special session. Drafts of legislation to create the new child safety agency include language requiring ongoing external oversight, something Biggs said he’s pleased to hear.
“I think the governor’s trying to get something all comprehensive done, in one effort, so I understand that,” Biggs said. “I think that it’ll play a part in special session, and if we can’t get it done in special, then next year.”
Biggs has suggested, as have others, that the solution to solving the backlog, and perhaps other problems plaguing CPS, will be a one-time infusion of funding. That would pay for temporary caseworkers to help the agency catch up and eliminate the backlog so a new agency won’t be bogged down by the failures of its predecessor.
That comes with the inherent difficulties of finding capable caseworkers who won’t require months of costly training for a position that won’t be needed in the long term. Mesnard floated the idea of convincing retired caseworkers to come back on a temporary basis.
However it gets resolved, the backlog’s demise is crucial to ensuring a new child safety agency is a success, and could put the state back on track to funding child safety in more cost-efficient ways. Rather than focusing so much on solving reports of abuse and neglect after the fact — a trend child welfare advocates say is largely why the number of Arizona children in foster care rose from 10,375 in 2008 to 15,712 in 2013 — Brophy McGee hopes a new agency can focus spending on less-costly solutions.
Early intervention could help reverse long-term trends that caused child safety to get out of hand in the first place, leading to problems like the backlog.
“If we’re operating in the ‘it’s melting and falling apart’ side, really the best way to operate is to turn that pendulum back,” she said.
New CPS?Full-time Positions
FY 2013 FY 2014 FY 2015 Total
CPS Staff (caseworkers & others) 54 342 50 446
Office of Child Welfare Investigations Staff 28 – 20 48
Records Retention Staff – - 5 5
CPS Legal Staff – 22 12 34
Total 82 364 87 533
Total Fund Expenditures ($ in Millions)
FY 2008 $509.9
FY 2009 $487.6
FY 2010 $448.9
FY 2011 $478.8
FY 2012 $561.2
FY 2013 $625.8
FY 2014 (appropriation) $690.7
FY 2015 (appropriation)* $751.6
* Includes $5 million for CHILDS replacement, $20 million for a new department, and $1 million for CPS?legal support in other agencies.