Raising Arizona

Okay, Janet, you won. Now what?

And Morgan Quitno Press, as has been widely reported, also just named Arizona the nation's Dumbest State.

Much more will have to be done in Napolitano's second term to not only reform Child Protective Services, her first priority, but to make a safe, productive future possible for at-risk kids of all ages and from all sorts of challenging beginnings.

Disabled kids, homeless kids, troubled kids.

Joe Forkan
Joe Forkan

As previous New Times stories in the "Deconstructing Janet" project have documented, they all have been underserved by Arizona.

With CPS, by most measures, Napolitano is heading in the right direction.

But the increased number of children being taken from dangerous situations has created its own problems. Not enough kids are reaching safe, secure, nurturing environments.

With CPS, experts suggest, Napolitano must:

• Focus on reducing the number of children in foster care or, worse, temporary shelters. Programs have been started toward that end, but they will take an increased commitment to succeed.

• Give more support to CPS's in-home service division — a great idea that some CPS workers say has not received adequate staffing.

• Push the anti-secrecy provisions that she and the media were pushing four years ago. Where was this idea buried?

• Begin a widespread campaign to increase the number of foster homes in the state.

• Increase the number of visitations for foster kids.

• And better, not just longer, training for new CPS employees. Supervisors say they need more thorough skill-testing of new hires, similar to methods used by some police agencies.

The most radical reform idea comes from an unlikely source, former Maricopa County attorney, and arguably a top 2010 gubernatorial candidate, Republican Rick Romley.

Romley suggests that CPS should be completely separated from its parent agency, the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

CPS should be "a unique interest" of the agency director, Romley argues, instead of being part of a much larger agency, where CPS gets "an hour of the director's time."

The marriage does seem forced: "A child's in danger? Get Economic Security."

Romley suggests a stand-alone "children and families" agency. Such agencies have been successful in other states.

"The culture within the system is that there are such competing interests," he says. "It needs to be taken totally out of DES. . . . Otherwise, we'll be back at the problems year after year."

Romley makes a compelling argument for a new agency. And there is ample data supporting his view.

It's a big idea, the kind that builds legacies.

And Napolitano might want to change course and consider it seriously.

Because if she doesn't, it probably will end up being part of Governor Romley's legacy.

Romley's suggestion of a separate agency targeting specifically children, families and foster care would have another advantage: It would help state leaders focus energy and resources on all at-risk youth, not just those who come in contact with Child Protective Services.

To be sure, Napolitano is already heading in that direction. Longtime child advocacy expert Terry Leveton says that before Napolitano took office, all the agencies charged with protecting children operated more as fiefdoms than partners. The governor "has brought these groups together in a real way to begin covering the gaps in protection," she says.

"Whether it's child welfare, child abuse, children who witnessed violence, children caught up in the system already, she's been very effective at yanking segments of government out of their traditional turf issues."

Part of that, Leveton says, has been efforts at better helping the mothers of at-risk children. Forty-nine percent of homeless people in Maricopa County are women, many with children. A massive coordinated push, from building shelters to providing educational and job opportunities, is under way to help an estimated 7,000 women and children get off the streets.

"This is the state, private parties, nonprofits and faith-based groups all coming together to create a real safety net for mothers and children," Leveton says. "I have never seen anything like it in Arizona."

Better than the upheaval of creating a new agency, Leveton and other advocates suggest, essentially, "staying the course." Their argument: Napolitano, with this broad spectrum of child advocates, has worked thousands of hours to build the framework for a greatly improved safety net. What's needed now is fine-tuning, not overhauling, and, more important, the continued intense focus on the issue Napolitano showed in her first term.

"We just need her to keep going the direction she's going with the energy and commitment she's shown so far," Leveton says.

Others suggest, though, that Napolitano must now go further, showing the same level of commitment to departments such as the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into conditions at ADJC before Napolitano took office. Their findings, released once she was governor, have been implemented over the past two years, and are on target for completion by September 2007. The investigation revealed horrible conditions — substandard education, kids kept in solitary confinement too long, kids not being treated for mental illness, and, ultimately, a pattern of suicide and attempted suicide. Conditions are better now, but participants in the process and observers alike worry that once the feds leave, ADJC will suffer again — a pattern that has repeated over the years. It is up to the governor to do two things: create a permanent oversight committee for ADJC (instead of the namby-pamby citizen advisory board her director, Michael Branham, wants), and bring real reform to the department. The kids housed by ADJC are not violent offenders, for the most part. They are troubled kids who need help, the kind of help that states like Missouri and Utah give their own troubled kids. There are models in place, and there is no reason Napolitano can't bring significant changes that will affect young lives, and likely cost the state less money.

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