This week, Gov. Jan Brewer called a special session of the Arizona Legislature to consider much-needed reform to our child welfare system.
There is much to applaud in the proposed legislation, including the establishment of a cabinet-level Department of Child Safety (DCS) to replace the failing Child Protective Services and whose director will report directly to the governor. The bill clarifies the purpose of DCS and adds accountability and transparency measures, new staff training requirements, and a Community Advisory Committee. Overall, the proposed bill structurally improves a system long-plagued by administrative inefficiencies, antiquated procedures, and lack of accountability.
The legislation will cost approximately $54 million, nearly half of which is designed to tackle the backlog of over 14,000 cases, with the remainder directed toward additional staff to address increasing caseloads, and $4 million earmarked for child-care subsidies.
While these changes are needed, let’s be clear, they do not “fix CPS.” In recent months, we’ve watched public administrators and elected officials look to place blame for the 6,500 uninvestigated (“NI”) cases. We’ve heard lawmakers argue over how much we can afford to invest in our children and whether we should emphasize protection or prevention. However, in all of the chatter about “reform” and “wrecking balls,’’ we’ve heard surprisingly little about the only people who really matter in all of this — the families.
The real problem with CPS is not the leadership that created the “NI” cases nor the years of chronic underfunding, though both are serious issues. Arizona’s child welfare failure is a philosophical crisis — a direct reflection of the way we choose to view our families in need.
Ask the average citizen on the street what CPS does and they will tell you they protect children from bad boyfriends and the mothers who bring them home, the predators and perpetrators we are so horrified to hear about on the news. The truth is, these cases are the exception. More than 80 percent of all CPS cases involve neglect, not abuse.
The average family who winds up in the CPS system is likely to be poor. One or both parents may be unemployed or underemployed and may struggle with behavioral health or medical challenges. Many were themselves abused or neglected with no model for healthy parenting. They love their children very much, often sacrificing their own needs, constantly juggling and stretching what is not enough in order to cover their children’s basic needs. Sometimes stress gets the best of them and they yell at their kids. Sometimes they are lucky enough to find work, but find they have no money for appropriate child care, so they do the only thing they can — they leave their 4-year old in the care of the 8-year old. Sometimes well-meaning neighbors get nervous and call the hotline and, before you know it, CPS is at the door.
What happens then is every parent’s nightmare. Arizona removes more children from their homes than any other state. There are many reasons why, but it boils down to a historic pattern of treating parents like perpetrators and creating an adversarial relationship with families. Worse yet, we keep children longer than most states — an average of 17 months — demanding higher standards for return than would have been expected to keep the children in the first place. We like to imagine every CPS child placed in a loving foster home, but this is not the case. With so many children in care, they are often warehoused in group homes, sometimes alongside children with serious behavioral health issues, subjecting them to more trauma and stress. The long-term outcomes for these children are not good, and if they do go home, they often do so with new behavioral issues of their own.
These are complex problems, but the solutions are not mysteries. Evidence-based best practices are being implemented across the country, so we know what works. We know that in homes where the child faces no immediate physical danger, stabilizing the family in order to keep the child safely in the home is always the best outcome. We know that widely available child-care subsidies for low-income families make a huge difference, as do targeted, in-home interventions tailored to their individual needs. We know that a robust social safety net that truly meets the basic needs of families goes a long way toward avoiding neglect cases. We know that investing in prevention and support programs up front stops the rising tide of children coming into the system, saving us millions in expensive out-of-home care. We know that paying higher salaries to professionally-credentialed caseworkers leads to better qualified staff, better outcomes for families, and an end to high turnover rates.
There will be voices this week claiming they would love nothing more than to make these investments, but Arizona simply can’t afford it. The fact is, we can’t afford not to. Child welfare is not a luxury item that we choose to fund at whatever level makes us comfortable. Children are either safe or they’re not. The failure to provide enough resources to cover basic needs is what led to many children being removed in the first place. The tens of millions of dollars saved on expensive out-of-home care alone would offset the investment in support services. Let us remember that Arizona currently has 450 million of your tax dollars stashed in an untouched “Rainy Day Fund.” What is happening to our kids isn’t a rainy day — it’s a category 5 hurricane!
Ultimately, we are faced with a question of values. If we truly value our families, we must stop treating them like criminals and begin partnering with them to make things better. It’s what’s best for the children and it’s less expensive in the long-run for taxpayers. All indications are that the new director of DCS, Charles Flanagan, is open to real reform, but he cannot do it alone. Our next governor must be held accountable for continuing the work that is only beginning, and we must demand an ongoing dialogue on how we become a state that invests in strengthening families rather than tearing them apart.
Good work will be done this week, we have no doubt, and we encourage all legislators to vote for the proposed bill. But make no mistake, the real reform is yet to come.
— Kristin Gwinn is executive director of Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition Advocacy Center.