Suffer the Children

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

Workers, too, are plagued by the stress of making life-altering decisions. They're damned in the newspapers if they don't remove kids — but reviled by parents when they do.

"The job is a 24-hour-a-day job, whether people want to acknowledge that or not," Scott says.

As a result of heavy workloads, some foster homes get little scrutiny. The law requires caseworkers to visit kids in foster care once a month. But throughout Napolitano's tenure, that's happened, on average, for just 64 percent of foster kids.

Joe Forkan
Representative Laura Knaperek gives Janet Napolitano an "F" — the increased number of kids in foster care, she says, is not acceptable.
Emily Piraino
Representative Laura Knaperek gives Janet Napolitano an "F" — the increased number of kids in foster care, she says, is not acceptable.

That's 5 percent below the agency's average in 2001 and 2002, according to records.

Foster parents like Angela Monroy are an anomaly. According to statistics Arizona reports to the federal government, fewer than 1 percent of kids in foster care here have suffered abuse. And while death gets the headlines, it's not what most CPS workers deal with on a daily basis.

But a far more systemic problem dogged CPS during the Napolitano-era foster care boom: dumping kids in shelters or group homes for months on end.

Marsha Porter, herself a former CPS worker, is the longtime executive director of nonprofit Crisis Nursery in central Phoenix. A slender woman with a stylish blond shag, she's happy to give a tour of the Crisis Nursery campus on Roosevelt Street, and it's easy to see why: It's like a college dorm for kids, with bedrooms, common areas for play, and a sunny backyard strewn with toys.

But the place wasn't initially designed for foster care, as Porter readily attests. Crisis Nursery began as a place where parents could voluntarily drop off kids if they felt overwhelmed. As long as the parents didn't disappear, Porter says, the agency didn't alert authorities, and mom got a break.

Only later did the nursery, and others like it, start accepting contracts to house kids while foster homes could be found.

From that point, it became only too easy for CPS to leave kids there for months on end. CPS workers preoccupied with new, urgent cases didn't always have the time to return to children they'd placed in shelters. After all, places like Crisis Nursery are nothing if not safe — and in the short term, that can seem like enough.

But then the short term turned into the long term. And suddenly kids were staying in shelters for months, or even a year.

Bonnie Cohn is a former CPS worker who started a five-bed shelter, Marcus House, in 1995. Like Porter, she felt she was providing a valuable service to her young charges — but was sometimes surprised at how long kids stayed before CPS found them placements.

"We had a sibling pair here for a full year," she says. "Then they were moved to foster parents who wouldn't take them — so they came back for another two months. And after that, CPS put them with a relative who hadn't seen them in six months!"

The Youth Law Center in San Francisco had long been critical of shelters, particularly when kids are extremely young. In 2004, the Center turned its attention to Arizona.

"It is not safe to put an infant in a group home for a long period of time," says Carole Shauffer, the director. "It may be physically safe, but it is not — and I can say with 100 percent certainty — not psychologically safe or developmentally safe."

The problem, Shauffer says, is that kids in shelters are cared for by staffers who come and go, rather than a single parent or couple they can count on. While there haven't been extensive studies of the impact of shelter stays in this country, Shauffer cites studies of kids coming out of orphanages in Asia and Eastern Europe, who often show developmental problems even after adoption.

That may be an exaggeration; nothing about Crisis Nursery resembles a grim Romanian orphanage. But it's also easy to see why homes are better than institutions, no matter how cheerful.

And so Shauffer's group threatened Arizona with a lawsuit over the shelter stays. Only then did CPS commit to no longer using the shelters as a long-term placement for kids. (CPS also agreed not to place kids younger than 3 in shelters, unless special circumstances exist.)

"Then we had so many foster homes lined up for these kids and the children removed from Marcus House so quickly, it made your head spin," Cohn recalls.

Porter says that Crisis Nursery is trying to reposition itself now that there's no steady stream of long-term CPS placements. But Marcus House ended up folding under the new policy; it couldn't stay afloat without CPS's endless supply of $110-a-day placements.

"Really, I don't know why they didn't beef up the foster care system much sooner," Cohn says. "They were obviously spending a lot of money on shelters, and that wasn't cheap for them."

But with so many problems to address in the short term, the big picture wasn't always in focus.

Kris Jacober, director of the Arizona Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents, generally praises Napolitano's efforts and the reform process. But she says that she and other foster parents have pushed CPS to do more for foster care recruitment.

"We sat on every committee, and so we know reforms are coming," she says. "But where the rubber meets the road, we're not seeing a lot of what's supposed to be happening."

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