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?

In a letter to New Times describing his mission, Wexler writes, "I do not believe that CPS workers are jack-booted thugs who relish destroying families. I think most of them are well meaning, undertrained, inexperienced and overwhelmed. But . . . I have never heard of even one caseworker being fired, suspended, demoted, criminally prosecuted, attacked in the media or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children. All of those things have happened to workers who left a child in his or her own home and something went wrong."

In Arizona, child welfare policies have moved between the two camps as well Ė sometimes inelegantly, given the particularly divisive nature of the extended child welfare community here. Former governor Hull, who once sat on the Children's Action Alliance board of directors, would be considered a child safety advocate, although a rather weak one. In contrast, the Legislature tended to be dominated by family preservationists throughout the 1990s. For years, lawmakers passed a series of reforms designed to ensure that child removal cases were reviewed quickly, to ensure parents' rights.

In 1990, the Legislature created Removal Review Teams, in which a group of child welfare experts review a case after a child is removed from a home. In 1998, legislation created "Model Court," in which the juvenile court was required to review child removals within seven days. And in 2000, the Legislature created the DES Family Advocacy Office, which allows parents to ask DES for an additional review of a child's removal.

Former state Representative Laura Knaperek: "When it comes to your child, you better be questioning."
Emily Piraino
Former state Representative Laura Knaperek: "When it comes to your child, you better be questioning."

One reform, Model Court, is widely viewed on both sides as a big success. But child safety advocates say that as a whole, the three procedures are duplicative, and a drain on resources. Further, Arizona has a very low rate of substantiating cases of abuse, which child safety advocates attribute in large part to these reforms. For example, in its latest semi-annual report, which measures April to September 2002, CPS reported receiving more than 27,000 calls reporting possible abuse. Of those, more than 12,000 were investigated and only about 1,300 were substantiated as abuse.

Nationally, the substantiation rate is 32 percent, compared with about 15 percent in Arizona, according to the Children's Action Alliance.

Laura Knaperek would like to see even more safeguards put in place, including having a team of community members review removals even before they happen. Knaperek, a former Republican lawmaker from Tempe, was until recently the unofficial leader of the family preservation effort. Before coming to the Legislature, Knaperek worked for the Arizona Consortium for Children with Chronic Illness, where she saw many profoundly disabled children taken from their homes because families were ill-equipped to take care of them. Knaperek thought it better to offer in-home services that would allow children to stay with their families.

So that shadowed Knaperek's perspective on CPS. Because she chaired the House Appropriations Committee for several sessions, she wielded more power than the average lawmaker Ė and made CPS her pet cause.

Knaperek, who lost a state Senate bid last November (more because she was up against popular former Tempe mayor Harry Mitchell than for her views on child welfare), is not popular with many other child welfare advocates. She has a reputation as a my-way-or-the-highway kind of leader, unwilling to compromise. For example, in 1997 she chaired a joint legislative committee designed to change the way all children's services are delivered in Arizona, by streamlining them through neighborhood centers. The committee's voluminous final report never went anywhere.

Knaperek says that's because then-governor Hull's staff told her they were not interested in airing Arizona's problems regarding children's services in public. But others say it was really because the final product was all Knaperek, and no one else.

Chris Cummiskey, a Democrat who served in the Legislature for 12 years and is now a member of the Napolitano administration, was on Knaperek's joint legislative committee, but says he quickly realized she had made up her mind about what should happen before the first hearing. He quit after several frustrating meetings.

"I said, I'm not going to engage in a charade. If you want to do something, go,'" he says.

For her part, Knaperek's feelings are clearly hurt. She feels shunned by the child safety advocates, whom she says get celebrated in Arizona Republic headlines and by the child-safety-minded Children's Action Alliance, while she always gets criticized. She's critical of the newly formed Children's Caucus in the Legislature, an invitation that was extended to Democrats and moderate Republicans but never to her if she was still in the Legislature, she says, even though she cares deeply for children.

"Obviously, if you're not part of the Children's Caucus, you're part of the Anti-Children's Caucus," she says.

Knaperek sees the movement heading away from family preservation.

"This is my own personal opinion, okay?" she says. "There are a lot of reforms that took place over the last six years and there are a lot of people that resent them. And I think those people see an opportunity . . . now that we're gone, to turn back the clock."

Knaperek is not paranoid. That is exactly what is happening. Since she took office in early January, Governor Napolitano has taken every opportunity to encourage CPS caseworkers to remove children when they feel it's necessary.

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My Voice Nation Help

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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