Suffer the Children

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

Foster parents wanted a statewide campaign. As a woman who runs her own marketing and public relations company, Jacober knows what that should look like.

It hasn't happened yet.

"I still don't see a billboard," she says, sighing.

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.

The number of foster homes has increased 16 percent since Napolitano took office, records show. Mickens says the agency is now focused on targeted recruitment, in hopes of keeping kids within their communities and even the same school district.

And, recently, CPS has done a good job of increasing the numbers of foster beds available — which means that more foster parents are willing to take multiple placements or sibling groups.

Records show that the number of kids in shelters has finally dropped.

After the Youth Law Center's lawsuit threat, and with Crisis Nursery's blessing, CPS assigned a caseworker to the nursery. The goal is to keep the kids there from falling through the cracks and find them foster homes quickly, rather than just dumping them.

The shelters are not yet empty. According to the most recent statistics, for June 2006, 806 kids have been living in shelters for 21 days or more. The average length of stay is 87 days.

Mickens, CPS's administrator, says those are mostly sibling groups and hard-to-place kids.

But Shauffer says the state is "not hitting the marks" that it agreed to in order to avoid a suit. Still, she feels confident that they can keep working together.

"I believe the governor is actually committed to ending the use of group care, and understands the problems with it," she says. "The question is how quickly they're committed to moving — and how much of a priority it is. That's really the question."

On one subject, Napolitano has earned raves from both top CPS staffers and the constituencies that interact with the agency: her willingness to listen.

Christa Drake, an alumna of Arizona's foster care system and director of a Tucson-based program called In My Shoes, recalls attending a forum where Napolitano took suggestions from the community on CPS reform.

"There were people who'd had their children taken away, and they were just yelling at the governor," Drake recalls. "But we talked to her about what we were hoping to do with In My Shoes, and she put our peer mentoring program into her 'Blueprint for Success' as a statewide model. She actually listened. And I think she did a wonderful job."

Jacober, director of Arizona's foster parent support group, agrees. When her group insisted on a voice in the reform process, they found Napolitano was willing to hear them out.

"She said, 'I will support you,' and she has never wavered from that," Jacober says.

Among top staffers at CPS, the mood is optimistic. Mickens, who's worked for the agency since 1985, says she's never witnessed such excitement.

"It is a wonderful time to be working at CPS," Mickens says, "the best four years I've had in the whole time I've been at the agency."

The big question is whether that excitement is going to translate into actual, statistical results — and whether it's shared by workers, whose job stress is enormous and whose caseloads never seem to shrink.

In the past year, turnover among caseworkers and their supervisors has finally shown dramatic improvement. That could make a big change.

But in some ways, workers' voices are quieter than ever before. Legislators critical of CPS, like Representative Knaperek and Senator Karen Johnson, a conservative Republican from Mesa, say that they used to get calls from CPS workers all the time, seeking help or trying to expose problems they'd witnessed.

Now they don't get such calls. They believe the problems are still happening, but that caseworkers are afraid to speak out.

One caseworker, who stepped forward to testify before a legislative committee last year, says that Mickens called the night before he was scheduled to testify. She tried to talk him out of speaking for 45 minutes, he says.

The caseworker testified anyway, detailing numerous problems with the in-home unit in his Kingman district and the overwork that plagues CPS workers. After his testimony, the caseworker says he was then repeatedly denied promotions. Last week, he resigned. (Because he is seeking a job in another state, he asked New Times not to use his name.)

For whatever reason, CPS is no longer a subject that gets much media attention. The Republic was up in arms when 36 kids died in 2002. But though state records show that another 77 kids died in 2003 and 2004, they hardly rated a mention. The reporter who once wrote in-depth reports on child death now covers Nutcracker auditions and files stories helping parents decode their teenagers' slang.

And it isn't just the Republic. Although CPS reports are almost always confidential, the agency can release summaries at the media's request in cases where children die.

In 2004 and 2005, reporters asked for summaries in only four cases, according to records CPS provided to New Times.

There are less gory examples. CPS began issuing a regular bulletin called "Reform Watch" to keep outsiders posted on its progress; the bulletins petered out, then finally stopped abruptly a year ago.

And then there's the departure of David Berns. Berns, who had run a CPS-style agency in Colorado Springs, was praised as a visionary with a national reputation when Napolitano hired him to run CPS's umbrella agency in 2003. But while his arrival came with great hoopla, his departure this summer, after less than three years on the job, barely rated a mention.

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