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Home / Opinion / Commentary / Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition response to child welfare proposal — real reform is missing

Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition response to child welfare proposal — real reform is missing

PAFCO logoThis 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.

5 comments

  1. We applaud the opinion of the Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition and know that the majority of 16,000+ cases backlogged will most likely be neglect, however, where there is cases of abuse children must be protected. Criminals need to be taken off our streets. Arizona is the state that removes the most children from homes and places them in group homes, foster homes or shelters. Is this the best the state can do for our children? The cost to the families and children is huge and the costs to the state of Arizona is huge. Why is our legislature bent on spending more on the outcome, which is foster care, group homes or shelters, rather than investing in prevention. Better yet, why not raise minimum wages, look at the issues creating underemployment, limiting work hours, employer actions regarding work for families and help families sustain themselves so that the state does not have to.

  2. As a long time Foster Care Review Board member for two boards and a Court Appointed Special Advocate for two families, I don’t see any true facts in this article. Efforts are made with families after the investigative case manager first visits the home. A very good preventative service is put in place, Families First. It is up to the parents to rectify the reason the initial visit was made to the home. It is not simple neglect, the facts of 99.9% of the cases are truly heart wrenching. Children do not deserve to be abused, starved, and living in deplorable conditions. The one time I can truthfully admit that children are placed into care unnecessarily is when parents refuse to pick them up when they are released from a juvenile detention facility. This accounts for that .1% of the cases that can be prevented. However, once again, parents have made a decision not to parent.

  3. Susan you are sitting on one side. What if this happens to one of your family members, you will feel what parents and children go through when there is no reason for removal. There are more parents that have been falsely accused of abuse and still CPS, having all the facts still kidnap their children. I know that there are parents that abuse children, but we rank 47 % on removing children from past years which was 25%. What this comes down to is federal dollars, the more children they remove the more money they get. CPS has removed more children since they been in the media this past year without properly investigating the cases. Do your research that means half of Arizona’s families have been destroyed. Read parents letters investigate CPS and gather the facts. I do not know if you know that they doctored the case notes they do everything in their power to keep families apart. They threaten parents and make them jump through hoops

    Senator Rick Murphy “demanded to know if any plans are in the works to provide independent oversight of the new child safety division, which he said is a crucial method of ensuring accountability. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable giving one more dime to CPS without that accountability,” Murphy told the committee. He brought up some of his own personal issues with CPS as an example of how the agency pushes its “narrative” of doing no wrong. For instance, Murphy claimed that he was never notified by CPS of a court proceeding involving one of his foster children last year and claimed that a lack of communication about those proceedings occurs roughly 90 percent of the time. CPS would intentionally not notify parents to prevent them from speaking at the hearings, Murphy said. “CPS has a narrative. They go to court, they cherry pick what they say and they give the judge what they want the judge to have [in order] to get the outcome they want. And they don’t want foster parents coming in there and saying something that’s not part of the narrative. And that’s why they don’t tell us,” Murphy said. Flanagan acknowledged that CPS has its share of issues, but said that, in the future, efforts to hold the agency accountable should be done through him. “I will tell you that it has been shocking to me to see the kinds of things that happened that do not follow the law and do not follow policy,” Flanagan said.”

    the Attorney General’s Office needs to reevaluate the current interpretation of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), including looking at how other states and the federal government operate regarding transparency (reporting data and outcomes, telling the stories of success and being honest about failures) in order to encourage and accept accountability

  4. U all are blind. Under protection by PPD and mcso in tandem with CP’s as kids are being terribly abused. If u really asked someone on the streets of Phx u would know this is bullshit. Why don’t you ask them what midnight productions is and ask mcso why all of his staff are child predators…. Connect the dots or pretend to b blind whatever

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