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 early February, Napolitano got two standing ovations at the Children's Action Alliance luncheon.

"Protect the child. I will back you up," the governor said.

Knaperek sees that statement as an affront.

Kevin Scanlon
Governor Janet Napolitano poses with an unidentified child at a Martin Luther King Day event. She wants to create a model child welfare system.
Governor Janet Napolitano poses with an unidentified child at a Martin Luther King Day event. She wants to create a model child welfare system.

"When it comes to your child, somebody's child, you better be questioning," she says.

Napolitano says she's not telling CPS caseworkers to stop asking questions. "Their number one job is to use their training and their common sense . . . to act in the best interest of the child," she says.

The governor calls the child safety vs. family preservation debate a "false dichotomy."

"Oftentimes," she adds, "the best interest of the child will be to remain in the family. Maybe the family will need some support. . . . By getting into that false choice, we've sent a very mixed message to our CPS caseworkers."

For an outsider, it is difficult to figure out just what is wrong with Arizona's Child Protective Services, because the agency's decisions are cloaked in secrecy.

About the only time the public learns about the workings of the agency is when a child dies in the state's care and all involved in the system agree that's not a fair assessment of what goes on in a department that investigates tens of thousands of leads a year.

In the past five years, only 18 claims were filed against CPS, varying from a kid who fell on Squaw Peak while in a state-run group home, to kids allegedly raped in foster care, to babies beaten or shot by their mothers after visits from CPS.

Insiders say that even CPS can't keep track of its activities, with an unwieldy computer system that makes it difficult to find out the most basic information. For example, ASU's Christina Rissley-Curtis recalls a research project in which she needed to know how many times in a year kids had been moved within the CPS system. She couldn't find that out without reading more than 6,000 cases prohibitively time-consuming.

"They have no capacity for monitoring their caseloads," she says of CPS.

One of the few truly independent people who gets a clear picture of what goes on at CPS on a regular basis is the state ombudsman assigned to the agency.

The CPS ombudsman position was created by the Legislature in 1997, because the volume of complaints against CPS was so much greater than just about any other state agency.

Greta Mang was the CPS ombudsman for the program's first four years. She found her workload overwhelming, sometimes reviewing up to 40 cases at a time, about 500 in all during her time in the job.

Mang agrees that caseworkers are overworked and underpaid, put in dangerous situations alone when police officers would take partners. She investigated all kinds of complaints, and says she didn't see an overwhelming tilt toward either family preservation or child safety, but rather a lack of any cohesive child welfare policy at all.

Yes, many parents had bogus complaints, and most caseworkers were hardworking and well-meaning, but Mang says she did see patterns in behavior among CPS workers that were troubling. Often that would come from a particular office or supervisor. Mang talked openly about her experiences with CPS, but would not share details such as names or office locations.

In one instance, Mang reviewed a case in which a father had sexually abused his daughter. The mother was not aware of the abuse, but when she found out about it, immediately got the child away from him. The caseworker wanted to remove the child from the mother permanently.

"The caseworker said, Well, she might end up with another guy who abuses the daughter,'" Mang recalls. "I was thinking, You can't take her kid away from her because of something she may do in the future.'"

After Mang questioned the decision, CPS stopped the severance proceeding and reviewed the caseworker's other decisions, finding a pattern of overly judgmental behavior, Mang says.

The caseworker was young and pregnant, Mang recalls. "I think she had an idea of what the perfect parent should be."

Yes, training and clearly stated policies would help, Mang says, but ultimately no law or rule will change a caseworker's gut feelings.

"How do you legislate personalities?" she asks.

For her part, Mang found that she constantly challenged her own beliefs of what constitutes a good parent. But not everyone she worked with did.

When she fought to get grandparents custody of kids who had been removed from their parents instead of putting them in foster homes Mang says she was told by one supervisor, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

For the most part, CPS was cooperative, she recalls, but one of Mang's frustrations was that the ombudsman has no authority to do anything but review a case file, investigate and make a report. Many times she could not access information on the grounds that it violated personnel rules.

She worked directly for the Legislature, a setup that was often problematic. Lawmakers would get complaints from constituents, and ask Mang to review their files. Mang did so, and reported back. Some legislators accepted her findings, but others, Mang recalls, insisted that the constituent was always right and would insist that Mang take their side. When she didn't, there were battles.

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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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