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Child welfare session gets off to a slow start before bills introduced

Senate President Andy Biggs (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Senate President Andy Biggs (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Arizona lawmakers opened a special session to overhaul the state’s child welfare system with a sputter, beginning the day without having finished preparing the bills needed to create a new Department of Child Safety.

After convening the special session early Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers waited in recess for hours while legislative council scoured over the final draft of the two bills that will establish the new department and, if approved by the Legislature, roughly $60 million in new child safety funding.

As lawmakers waited for the bills to be filed, Democrats met with Charles Flanagan, who Brewer has tapped to head the new department, while Republicans in the Senate met with Senate President Andy Biggs to go over the details of the child safety agency.

Corresponding bills were introduced on the House and Senate late Tuesday afternoon. The bills will be heard in committees in their respective chambers on Wednesday.

SB1001 and HB1001, which detail the Department of Child Safety’s purpose and would outline the policies the new agency must follow, will be heard in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and House Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs Committee, respectively.

SB1002 and HB1002 must be approved by the Appropriations Committees.
Hearings are scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Gov. Jan Brewer called for the session on May 22, when she also outlined her proposal for a $5 million supplemental appropriation in fiscal 2014 and $54.6 million in fiscal 2015, as well as millions more in the following years. Those dollars would pay for a legislative wish list designed to eliminate a backlog of unattended cases that’s grown to nearly 15,000, a retention program to improve staff morale and chip away at the state’s high turnover rates among child safety workers, and the hire of dozens of new case workers capable of investigating criminal abuse and neglect.

The bills would also overhaul and expedite training procedures for child safety caseworkers, create new oversight of the department and call for an external audit of the state’s child safety system to continue to find ways to improve how the state handles cases of abuse and neglect.

Despite a few concerns from the legislature’s stalwart conservatives, lawmakers are expected to pass the bills as Brewer desires, an increase in spending that would result in $848 million appropriated to child safety in fiscal 2015.
Senate President Andy Biggs, the chief sponsor of SB1001, told reporters he would “probably” vote for the bill, though he has called for the legislation to include benchmarks that must be met by the new department in order for it to receive future funding.

The governor’s January call for reform came in light of reports of 6,595 child abuse cases that were set aside without investigation.

And while the governor’s staff has reported progress in its effort to examine all those NI, or “not investigate” cases, Child Protective Services remains plagued by an ever-growing backlog of cases that haven’t been touched in more than 60 days, low morale and a high employee turnover rate, and weighty inefficiencies for an agency that averages 942 reports of abuse and neglect a week.

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