The State of Her State

Few argue that Janet Napolitano has been a good governor. The question is, why isn't she great?

While states like Missouri celebrate innovative programs that educate these kids, treat their mental illness and encourage them to lead a good life, Arizona continues to lock them up in depressing, gray cells that no amount of retrofitting can ever render 100 percent suicide-proof.

It is as though the throw-away-the-key prosecutor and state mother in Napolitano can't come to terms on the issue of at-risk teens.

And beyond CPS and ADJC, there is a much less publicized group of kids that the state continues to quietly fail. The state Department of Economic Security has for years been violating federal requirements that dictate how infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities get therapy and other services. Recent attempts at overhauling the broken system are apparently backfiring, drawing ire from parents, therapists and other critics who say children will get fewer intervention services than ever before with even less qualified people providing that service.

Governor Napolitano with a young constituent.
Governor Napolitano with a young constituent.
Joe Forkan

The state has one more year to fix problems under a federal mandate to make changes. If it blows the deal, it risks losing millions in funding. The U.S. Department of Justice may intervene legally. The state has scrapped several dates to roll out its new system, and can't say exactly when that will happen.

To be sure, saving endangered children on a statewide level is a wildly complex task. And for every statistic that suggests goals haven't been reached, there are indicators that Napolitano's leadership has begun to create a stronger safety net for Arizona's at-risk children, at least the younger ones.

"There was a lot of lip service before Napolitano came in," says Terry Leveton, a clinical psychologist who, besides founding the "Halo of Hope Foundation" for at-risk children, has led numerous child welfare initiatives in the Valley. "But she is the real thing. She has simply done an extraordinary job of bringing government, private and public agencies together to identify and cover gaps in service and protection for children."

Early intervention policies and programs have strengthened greatly under Napolitano's watch. Child welfare agencies that once operated as fiefdoms are now working together to provide "seamless care" for at-risk children, Leveton says.

The great challenge now, though, is making sure investigators and counselors don't, in overzealousness or fear of hindsight, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

"Of course we're not where we want to be," Leveton says. "But we are much closer thanks to the work she has done."

Even Phoenix's growing brown cloud was addressed by the governor through the prism of protecting children.

Soon after Napolitano took office, she gave Steve Owens, her newly appointed director of the Department of Environmental Quality, an initiative to focus on children's health. The program was officially launched in April 2003 at a forum that pulled together teachers, school board administrators, asthma experts and environmental activists to talk about the best ways to improve children's health. From this forum, the Children's Environmental Health Project developed with four goals: to fight environmental triggers of asthma, to get rid of lead in drinking water, to eliminate or reduce pesticide use in schools, and to implement a school bus idling program to decrease pollution near schools.

Because Arizona has one of the highest asthma rates in the country, and Maricopa County has the highest rate of asthma prevalence in the state, the major focus was on reducing environmental asthma triggers and improving air quality.

But this worthy project has suffered the fate of several of Napolitano's grand ideas: Amid the flurry of other activity generated by the governor, in a state notorious for underfunding good ideas, the project has languished in relative obscurity.

No legislation has been passed or changed as a result of the project. No departmental mandates have been given to school districts. The momentum and excitement that grew from the first forum has virtually died. The major achievements of the project have all been implemented on a voluntary basis with no enforcement from DEQ.

(A recurring theme in Arizona. ADEQ, also oft ignored and grossly underfunded by a Legislature that hates environmental regulators, is woefully undersized to enforce environmental laws and is still straddled with bizarro pro-polluter policies such as announced inspections.)

Asthma remains an enormous concern, especially in low-income school districts. Earlier this year, a fifth-grader at Rose Linda Elementary School in the Roosevelt district died of an asthma attack, prompting the district to start its own voluntary air quality flag program (colored flags are raised each day indicating air quality — green is the best, red is the worst — and children are not to be let outside on poor air quality days). In all, students in this central Phoenix district lost 10,000 days of school because of asthma.

Studies have shown that children must be able to breathe to ace those all-important standardized tests.

Take a step back, and her sweeping, concerted efforts to protect children, flawed as they are at the moment, point to a recurring theme regarding Janet Napolitano's first term in office: You think we're bad now? You should have seen us four years ago.

Which is a variation on another commonly held opinion of Janet Napolitano, especially by those to the left of her in her own party.

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