Heaven Help The Child

Arizona's child welfare system is perpetually in disarray. Now, Governor Janet Napolitano wants to save the children. But can anyone sort out this political and financial mess?

But one area where the state is lacking, he said, is in trained caseworkers.

What does a 23-year-old art history major know about child abuse? Gelles asked. Such people tend to judge a child's situation based on the way the home smells, rather than what's really going on with the family, he said, telling Arizona to hire social workers.

Christina Rissley-Curtis, a trained social worker and professor at Arizona State University, is co-director of ASU's child welfare project. She, too, wants to see social workers as caseworkers.

Children's Action Alliance executive director Carol Kamin says that creating a new children's agency would be "moving chairs on the Titanic."
Emily Piraino
Children's Action Alliance executive director Carol Kamin says that creating a new children's agency would be "moving chairs on the Titanic."
Gubernatorial aide Noreen Sharp: "I never put money first."
Emily Piraino
Gubernatorial aide Noreen Sharp: "I never put money first."

"I think CPS workers make as serious decisions as doctors do," she says. "They are trying to do the impossible, which is to try to protect every child that comes into their system without enough resources and without enough trained staff. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line somebody's going to get hurt."

But the reality is that CPS can't even find 23-year-old art history majors to take caseworker jobs. About 70 positions are currently open across the state, and to attract trained social workers CPS would have to raise salaries.

Carol Kamin, executive director of the Children's Action Alliance, says those empty positions must be filled with qualified people.

"We can give you lots of recommendations that would make the system better, but in my opinion nothing matters . . . if you don't have decently paid, decently supported workers with decent caseloads," she says.

Kamin, who actually ran CPS herself in the 1980s, says she used to think that the agency needed to be completely dismantled, re-created as a separate children's agency. Now she says that would be "moving chairs on the Titanic," and she worries that, ultimately, the new agency would lose funding.

Napolitano says it's too early to tell if a separate agency is needed. First, she wants to examine resources devoted to CPS and determine if money is being spent correctly.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley says he's as worried about overspending on CPS as he is about underspending. His priorities include creating a new children's agency and a switch for Romley making CPS records and court proceedings public. He supports a bill now making its way through the Legislature that would create a pilot program to open CPS court proceedings. (So does Napolitano.)

First, Romley says, the state needs a clearly articulated policy on child welfare. Napolitano's advisers agree; that's part of the goal of her advisory commission.

But how to agree on a philosophy, and get it down in writing as an official policy?

How to protect children is probably the most difficult conundrum society faces, mainly because the stakes are so high a child's life but also because this issue cuts to the root of the very definition of the role of government: Just how involved should we be in our neighbor's life, and the life of her child?

One of the most frustrating realities of the child welfare reform debate is that there really are no bad guys, only differing perspectives and people trying desperately to do the right thing in situations that have already gone terribly wrong. Generally speaking, there are two camps: family preservation vs. child safety. The family preservationists generally, but not always, conservatives are painted as wanting to keep families together at any cost, even if that means keeping a kid in what is likely an abusive situation. The child safety advocates, who tend to be more liberal in their politics, are described as wanting to yank a kid away from his family when there is the remotest possibility of abuse, without substantiating the abuse first.

The truth is that these camps tend to be more closely aligned than most people will admit. Dozens of child advocates on both sides of the issue were interviewed for this story, and all expressed great concern for child welfare. Sadly, both sides make good arguments: Family preservationists point to instances where children have died in foster care, after being taken from their homes. Just last week, a foster mother was charged with murder for allegedly shaking a baby put in her care; the six-week-old had been born to a drug-addicted mother. Child safety advocates bring up cases where children have died in their own homes, even under CPS supervision, like Anndreah Robertson, who died in 2001 from exposure to crack cocaine. At the time, CPS was investigating Anndreah's mother and grandmother.

The family preservationists insist that of course they don't want to see children left in abusive homes. The child safety advocates insist that they don't want children removed from a home without justification. No one wants a child to be harmed.

The battle between family preservation and child safety has long been waged at the federal level. In the late 1980s, legislation was passed requiring child welfare workers to make every effort to reunite families. A 1997 law relaxed that, moving the policy pendulum closer to child safety.

The family preservationists are a somewhat beleaguered group. Richard Wexler, a former journalist, runs the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Virginia. His group receives funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a well-respected philanthropic organization, and yet child safety advocates like Richard Gelles often manage to steal Wexler's spotlight.

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1 comments
dtrick819
dtrick819

that to my friend deatrick that let me say this , whats up with the news times nnot putting what has happen to my baby boy floyd dale munson mom jamie sue munson , i  guess that my baby life could be on the line no one will help u once that a cps case worker has taken your baby at 72 hrs old ,ANN BAUER MISTER   4000 N. CENTRAL AVE  HAPPENS TO PLACED MY BABY IN FROSTER CARE HE NEVER EVEN GOT TO COME HOME

 
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