Health & Human Services

Arizona Makes Child Safety a Priority

Gov. Jan Brewer abolished the child protective services division in her state in the hopes of creating an independent agency that reports directly to her -- something only 10 other states have done.
by | January 28, 2014
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, right, shakes hands with House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, prior to her State of the State address earlier this month.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, right, shakes hands with House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, prior to her State of the State address earlier this month. AP/Ross D. Franklin

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wants to do something rare: She wants to create a standalone agency dedicated just to child welfare -- something only 10 other states have done. "The time has come to statutorily establish a separate agency that focuses exclusively on the safety and well-being of children," Brewer said in her State of the State address this month. "Child safety must be the priority and become embedded in the fabric of this new agency. It is our legal and moral duty."

Brewer's proposal comes at a time when the current division is swamped by complaints of child abuse and neglect. To fix the broken system, the governor wants to set up a separate agency with a cabinet-level director who would report to her office. Since Brewer will need help from the legislature to change state law, however, she's creating a new division in her cabinet in the meantime called the Division of Child Safety and Family Services. She's appointed Charles Flanagan, previously in charge of the state's Department of Juvenile Corrections, as the new director.

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Historically, Child Protective Services (CPS) has been housed in the Department of Economic Security, a large entity responsible for overseeing a mosaic of services, from unemployment insurance to food stamps. And some critics of Brewer's proposal think the agency should stay there. Columnist Linda Valdez of The Arizona Republic charged that Brewer's plan does little to address the real reason children have been ignored by the division in charge of protecting them. "It is no mystery what's wrong with the state's child welfare system," she wrote. "It has been understaffed and underfunded for a very long time. Caseworkers lack the technology to do the job efficiently."

Brewer's proposal calls for setting aside $25 million for start-up costs related to the new division and $21.5 million to hire 140 new full-time staff, including 86 caseworkers and 16 supervisors meant to address a backlog of more than 10,000 cases. Her 2015 budget notes that the Office of Child Welfare Investigations received 10,984 reports of allegations of criminal child abuse and neglect in 2013, but the staff of 25 investigators and five investigation managers could only look into 17 percent of those cases. Brewer is asking for an additional $8.6 million to fund 93 full-time positions in that office, which would include 68 new investigators. But the skeptical Valdez observed in her column that this is only the opening salvo from the governor's office and it is likely that the legislature -- known to be fiscally conservative -- will appropriate less money than what Brewer has requested.

The decision to isolate child welfare as an individual agency is unusual, but it could work, says Richard Barth, dean of the school of social work at the University of Maryland. After all, many of the departments and programs in states that support children and families in the child welfare system, such as education and medical care, are already separate entities. "There does need to be a strategy to have these conversations across housing, income assistance, child welfare, children's mental health, health and juvenile services," he says. "That can be a children's cabinet or that can be done in other ways."

To learn more about the proposal, Governing spoke with Director Flanagan about the governor's plans to turn around child welfare services in Arizona. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and style.

What led to the problems that Brewer is now trying to address?

There are a couple of factors that have created this crisis that we're in now. First the economic downturn; it led to cuts in staffing. Second is the horrendous attrition rate -- between 25 and 30 percent, which is obviously unacceptable. Caseworkers and investigators have been working at between 177 percent and 180 percent of national caseload standards, which puts them at almost twice as much work as what other caseworkers are doing on average throughout the United States. The problem with that is that they're overwhelmed.

I've consistently heard in my 28 years of state services that the quality of supervision and the supports that these employees get [is poor]. But the supervisors can't supervise because they're having to pick up the caseloads of the employees that leave. This is almost a perfect storm of factors that have led us to where we are now. And the dysfunctional response of the agency was to not investigate a significant number of cases over the course of many years, primarily from 2009 through 2013.

Up until now to whom has the head of the Division of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) reported?

Previously, the person in charge reported up through a chain of command that was fairly large to the director of Economic Security. Now, however, the landscape has been changed because our governor has taken action not only to address the most pressing problems but also to deal with it systemically and find a way to do it better. What it does is raise this division to the direct scrutiny of the governor. It separates it out from a very large and unwieldy bureaucracy and it focuses all of the attention of the people working for it on the primary purposes, in this order: first, child safety and second, family services.

The positive impact that this will have is very significant, but I will repeat what others have said: Separating out this new division and creating an agency from this division is not the entire solution. The solution will need to be addressed through legislation. It will need to be addressed through leadership and practices inside the agency and in partnership with many people and many organizations within the community.

Your state's director of Economic Services, Clarence Carter, told The Arizona Republic that the state has to reduce the overall number of children in foster care, which would mean addressing the root causes of child abuse and neglect through prevention and intervention programs. What are the next steps beyond setting up a new division with higher accountability standards and a direct reporting line to the governor's office?

As the governor mentioned, this new entity that she's created is the division of Child Safety and Family Services, so obviously everyone believes we must have a situation in which we can keep families together. And that means that they have the services they need. But that can't take a front seat and push to the back seat child safety. Once child safety is ensured, then keeping family together or reunifying the family together are strategies that are going to need to be employed. And, quite frankly, finding that forever home for the children who can't return to their homes is going to be extremely important as well.

Have you heard any feedback yet from the legislature on the governor's proposal?

I've heard very positive responses from legislators on both sides of the aisle and from legislators in leadership roles. Making sure that we're doing the right thing is on everybody's mind. There's certainly an appetite for supporting this. I'm very hopeful that we'll be able to accomplish this in relatively short order -- within this legislative session. But it will take years to implement as a system so that we can't experience the problems that happened in the past.

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