Suffer the Children

Governor Napolitano made CPS reform a top priority. But it's been a tough four years

That happened before the agency could hire many new workers.

And the numbers continued to rise steadily, with a 48 percent increase over the baseline in Napolitano's second year. The six-month period ending this past March was the first without an increase since Napolitano took office — but CPS still removed 3,753 kids, 41 percent more than in the last period under Hull.

"You had a caseworker fury in removing kids," says Representative Laura Knaperek, R-Mesa, a longtime critic of Napolitano's CPS policies. "Even if they didn't think they should remove the child, they did it anyway — because they were afraid not to."

Robin Scoins has become one of CPS's biggest critics.
Martha Strachan
Robin Scoins has become one of CPS's biggest critics.
Scott Ambrose says CPS didn't take the time to do its homework before taking his client's baby.
Martha Strachan
Scott Ambrose says CPS didn't take the time to do its homework before taking his client's baby.

The goal was admirable. The results, not so much so:

• Despite the increased number of kids coming into foster care, adoptions out of the system stayed flat. And so the number of kids in out-of-home care swelled from just over 6,000 in 2003 to more than 10,000 today — a 62 percent increase.

• New foster homes didn't keep pace with the demand, so many children ended up in shelters. In 2003, 2,754 kids were stuck at shelters or group homes for more than 21 days. Some kids stayed for more than a year.

• The law requires CPS workers to visit kids in foster care once a month. Under Napolitano, the percentage of kids getting the mandated visits has actually dropped to an embarrassing 64 percent — 5 percent below the last two years of Hull's administration.

• Despite salary increases for caseworkers, turnover hovered near 20 percent until recently. Inexperienced workers are still forced to make life-changing decisions on tight deadlines.

• While the Legislature allotted money for new positions, CPS can't fill them fast enough to make up for people who quit. There are currently 53 caseworker vacancies. A six-week training session for new hires means that another 186 are in class rather than on the job, leaving co-workers to cover for them.

• As a result, caseloads are far too high: Investigators average 15 cases a month instead of 10, per CPS standards. Workers handling ongoing cases are in even worse shape — typically exceeding CPS standards by more than 10 cases a month.

CPS staffers say that, just like before Napolitano took office, they're too busy to do their job properly. The agency's computer system, they say, is still a redundant, confusing mess that saps far too much of their time.

And now they have more kids than ever to monitor.

Napolitano vigorously defends her record. Although she didn't have time for an interview, her deputy chief of staff, Mike Haener, said in a written statement that the governor is especially proud of statistics that show increases in the number of children returned to their parents from 2003 to 2006, as well as an increase in the number of foster homes available.

"Piecemeal changes had been tried in the past with few results," Haener wrote. "A complete overhaul was necessary. It was difficult; we all know that change can be hard and it takes time. But in the long run, the sustainable changes we have made and are continuing to make will lead to better outcomes for children and families for years to come."

Indeed, CPS's top brass cite a number of promising programs and point to statistics that seem to be improving. They boast great progress, to the point of sounding almost giddy.

But by any statistical measure, and for any worker on the ground floor, the past four years have been difficult.

"I don't think you can ever say that making sure children are safe is a bad thing," says Alissa Scott, a CPS supervisor who left in 2004. "But I can't say the agency was ready for the increased workload. We lost a lot of good people.

"The expectations are reasonable for the safety of the children," she adds. "But they were unreasonable for the workers."

As any caseworker can tell you, there's no such thing as a completely innocent victim. CPS caseworkers don't just show up in the middle of the night and take happy, healthy babies from perfect homes.

There is always something complicating the situation: a drug-addicted boyfriend, a child who's acting out sexually, a toddler roaming the street.

Robin Scoins admits that her case, too, had its complications. She knows it was ridiculous not to realize she was pregnant until just weeks before giving birth.

But what happened after that wasn't just ridiculous, it was a nightmare: a classic example of how faulty evidence — pushed by a caseworker without the time to do her homework — can trump the facts.

It started after the birth of Scoins' third child, a boy. Then 35, Scoins was seriously depressed. She had good reason: Her then-boyfriend was an alcoholic, she says, and had been abusive in the past. The relationship was on its last legs. And Scoins' oldest son, then 14, had been diagnosed with a host of mental-health problems.

The doctor at Southwest Behavioral Health Services put Scoins on heavy-duty antidepressants, according to records provided to New Times by Scoins' lawyer, Scott Ambrose.

For the seven months that Scoins saw counselors at Southwest, her doctors reported that she was anxious, worried about her older boy, and depressed about her relationship ending, records show.

But they never once suggested that she was a bad parent. And they never noted a suspicion of drug use.

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