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Lots of child welfare ideas, but lawmakers still working out details of overhaul

A group of lawmakers and Capitol staffers racing to create a new child safety and welfare agency in a matter of weeks must still iron out a few details, including how to handle criminal conduct investigations and provide oversight of the department, according to documents obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times.

Meanwhile, lawmakers anxiously await an estimate from the Governor’s Office of how much the reforms will cost in ongoing and, some hope, one-time expenses to correct the issues that have plagued Child Protective Services and establish a new agency while giving it a leg up to succeed.

Republican lawmakers in the Senate held small group meetings this week with Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, to be briefed on the progress leading toward a special session. It could be called in less than two weeks. Rep. Kate Brophy McGee said she’s been told Gov. Jan Brewer may call lawmakers back to the Legislature as early as May 27, the week after Memorial Day.

Others worry that, with so many issues still being hashed out and funding still in question, it could be mid-June before lawmakers gather to create an agency that the governor hopes to have established by July 1.

Debate about the Office of Child Welfare Investigations (OCWI) is causing a stir again among members of the governor’s CPS Reform Work Group. The group previously debated giving OCWI investigators police powers as a means to conduct more effective investigations, but relented out of concerns that the authority would be too great for the department.

But now some lawmakers are worried that OCWI’s effectiveness could be neutered if its functions are tied too closely with the new agency. Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Mesa, is concerned that OCWI could get “swallowed up” in the department, and that the lines between investigations of abuse, neglect and criminal conduct could be blurred, according to Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix.

And given the finite extra resources available to be appropriated for child safety and welfare — lawmakers are expected to have a bitter dispute over additional funding for the new agency, on top of the $58.6 million already added in the fiscal 2015 budget — Farnsworth wants to ensure that OCWI’s resources are focused exclusively on investigating criminal conduct, Brophy McGee said.

Farnsworth could not be reached for comment.

A proposed change to the draft of legislation creating the new agency includes language that would grant the agency’s director the authority to prioritize “reports for investigation which contain criminal conduct allegations” and “detail employees between various divisions or units of the department” to further prioritize the investigation of certain cases over others, according to documents obtained by the Capitol Times.

The work group is also still debating how to provide proper oversight of the organization. Language in the latest draft to create the new agency includes a call for an external audit of the department and a $1 million appropriation to the fiscal 2015 budget to fund it.

The proposal is similar to a $250,000 bill pushed by Biggs during the regular session. That measure was vetoed by Brewer, who said she preferred to deal with the issue as a part of a comprehensive look at all CPS issues and funding at the same time.

Lawmakers are already floating ideas for adding accountability to any new funding for child safety. One such suggestion, which Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, said was brought up in his small group meeting, is to require the new CPS to meet benchmarks in order to get additional funding.

Essentially, it would be a way to ensure that the money being spent is fixing what it’s supposed to, be it shrinking the 12,000-case backlog that now plagues CPS or hiring a certain number of new caseworkers in order to combat the agency’s high turnover rates.

Senate Majority Leader John McComish said he doesn’t find the idea of improved accountability over how funds are spent unreasonable, particularly given the lack of improvement despite the millions of dollars already pouring into CPS.

“Frankly, there’s not been a substantial change,” the Phoenix Republican said.

Brophy McGee said that despite the different opinions among the work group, lawmakers and staff are inching closer to reaching a consensus. The policy issues are getting down to the “I can live with it” phase of negotiations, she said.

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