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?

During her time as CPS ombudsman, Mang saw swamped public defenders who looked at cases minutes before entering the courtroom, and a lack of private lawyers familiar with the intricacies of the child welfare system. She knew of judges who fell asleep during severance hearings. Mang saw psychologists make biased evaluations to keep parents from getting their kids back. Often, the mental health system failed both children and parents, she says, and many times substance abuse services were inadequate.

Mang left the ombudsman's office last year to work with the elderly. Her advice, when it comes to child welfare: "Look at the entire system. Don't just focus on CPS as the entire problem."


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.
www.governor.state.az.us
Governor Janet Napolitano poses with an unidentified child at a Martin Luther King Day event. She wants to create a model child welfare system.

That is exactly the point of the governor's CPS Advisory Commission. Many of the seven subcommittees don't directly address CPS at all. The commission includes a group examining the structure of CPS and others that are looking at CPS reports, records and hearings. But the remaining four subcommittees are examining juvenile justice, health care, education and community services.

Privately, even the governor's biggest fans call the process "pot-stirring," and wonder how much it can accomplish, particularly given the current budget scenario.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley is blunt about it.

"The concern that I have with the governor's commission is that it has too many moving parts," he says. "I would have done it very differently. It's a bit too ambitious. It may die of its own weight."

It was easy to see Romley's point last week, at the second meeting of the Records subcommittee. The subcommittee includes an impressive group of policymakers and line staff, including DES executives, attorneys, social service providers, ground-level CPS caseworkers, even a pediatrician.

The task of examining the CPS reporting process is huge, encompassing not just how to screen potential abuse cases and investigate them, but when to remove kids and how to deliver services.

What is striking about this group is that many don't even know the most basic laws. The group's first session was devoted to brainstorming about things that work and don't work within the system. (They came up with 38 good things, and 102 bad things.) Then they asked for copies of some statutes and definitions pertaining to CPS. That discussion took up much of the second meeting.

More than an hour into the second meeting (each is scheduled for just 90 minutes), one member finally raised his hand to say that all of this talk was meaningless without a mission statement. Most of the remainder of the time was devoted to a debate over family preservation vs. child safety.

While others looked at their watches, obviously concerned that precious time was disappearing, Noreen Sharp beamed.

Sharp is the mastermind behind the advisory commission. With close-cropped gray hair and an impish quality, she's a whirling dervish in a molasses-slow government bureaucracy. She talks constantly, and is fond of long analogies.

Sharp is either a genius, or she's completely full of it. Her résumé, which includes not only years of experience in human services in Arizona but also a law degree and full-fledged membership in the Sisters of St. Dominic of Adrian Michigan (she's a bona fide nun), suggests the former.

Most recently, as chief counsel for the Child and Family Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office under Napolitano, Sharp dramatically reduced the backlog of child dependency cases (children waiting in foster care for permanent placements), and ran committees that, on a smaller scale, mirrored her current efforts. She gets high marks across the board from people who worked with her.

"She is the single most energetic person I know," Napolitano says. "I think she's the right person in the right job at the right time."

The CPS Advisory Commission is Sharp's only duty now, and it will keep her busy. Each subcommittee is set to meet seven times, and the final report – which Sharp says will include legislative, policy and fiscal recommendations – is due in June.

Sharp seems unconcerned by the pending budget crisis, saying that the governor's budget is much more compassionate toward children – but not explaining how Napolitano will get it passed.

Money's not the solution, in any case, according to Sharp. For her part, the governor says it's too early to anticipate the final outcome.

"I would say it in this order. It's a matter of leadership and leadership and leadership and management and administration and analysis and thinking – and money," Sharp says. "It doesn't hurt, but money is not going to help you do anything if you don't understand what you're doing. I never put money first. Never."

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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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