Heaven Help The Child
Kevin Scanlon

Heaven Help The Child

2003 is shaping up to be the Year of the Child in Arizona. But don't expect the lives of the state's children to get any better.

It's only February, and already Governor Janet Napolitano has created a Children's Cabinet. State legislators have formed a Children's Caucus. Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley is about to present his own plan to revamp Arizona's child welfare system. And the governor's own seven-subcommittee, statewide commission to review Child Protective Services has been meeting for weeks.

Will all of this kiddy talk result in real change, or will it just make us all feel good? After all, Napolitano's predecessor, Jane Hull, was the Children's Governor. The Arizona Republic has been "Saving Arizona's Children" for years.

And yet local children's advocates say that our child welfare system is in the worst shape ever.

It could be about to get much worse. At the same time policymakers are gnashing on long-term solutions and mission statements in the basement of the state's executive towers, state lawmakers are next door, slashing the few children's programs that do exist, in the name of balancing the budget.

So by the time Napolitano's task force makes its recommendations in June, the outlook could be much bleaker for Arizona's children.

We don't need seven subcommittees or the 167 experts interviewed for Romley's study to know that Arizona's children are in trouble. Children's Action Alliance, a local child advocacy nonprofit, has already collected the sad statistics. Arizona ranks 43rd in the nation for child well-being including health, poverty and education. Foster care subsidy rates haven't increased since 1996. Reports of child abuse are up, but CPS isn't getting the resources to address them. One-third of kids in CPS care don't even receive the legally mandated monthly visit from a caseworker.

The simple reality is that even at current spending levels, CPS is starved. Caseworkers are undertrained and overworked, thrown into the scariest situations to make the toughest life-and-death decisions at a starting annual salary of $24,000.

During the last round of budget cuts in late 2002, CPS' parent agency, the Department of Economic Security, was told to cut 2 percent of administrative spending. Officially, CPS caseworkers are to be spared, but experts say that may not happen, given past practices.

On top of that, this year's legislative budget proposal cuts tens of millions of dollars for programs that offer health care for uninsured kids, prenatal care for poor women, early childhood education, literacy training, adoption services, substance abuse treatment and child abuse prevention. And it severely limits funding for Family Builders a community-based program lauded by both Democrats and Republicans that offers services to families whose children aren't removed from the home but are deemed by CPS to desperately need help.

Arizona's child welfare system has other woes, problems that can't be fixed by simply hiring more caseworkers. Those closest to the inner workings of CPS say caseworkers can be biased and judgmental; with no guiding principles to help them in decision-making, they sometimes let personal feelings override professional judgment.

The agency's computer system won't allow for the most basic analysis, and CPS only haphazardly collects complaints about caseworkers. Outside of CPS, the courts are clogged with child dependency cases, lawyers are overworked and often unprepared to deal with the convoluted tangle of hearings and procedures. Mental health and substance abuse services are lacking.

Fixes in the law are desperately needed. For example, right now CPS can only remove a child from an abusive home if the abuser can be identified. And the fact that a parent is abusing drugs is not a reason, on its own, for CPS to legally remove a child.

It is amazing, frankly, that there were only nine child abuse deaths in 2001 in the state, with six of those children already known to CPS.

Members of the bipartisan Children's Caucus say they won't allow the state to balance the budget on the backs of children. The authors of the budget insist they won't mortgage our children's future with further deficit spending.

"I'm not going to speculate whether the Legislature's going to hand me that budget," says Napolitano, whose own proposal protects what she calls "vital safety net services for children." She adds, "We're a long way from there. They don't even have consensus [in the Legislature]."

It would be enough for Janet Napolitano just to win the struggle to maintain current funding levels for children's programs this year, but our new governor is ambitious. She wants to save the children, too.

Arizona is not the only state struggling with how to fix its child welfare system. Just about every state is in crisis, with dozens of states under court orders to improve. Last year, the Child Welfare League of America called on governors particularly the newly elected, like Janet Napolitano to make reforms. Foremost, the league said: Hire qualified staff with adequate compensation and appropriate caseloads.

More specifically, in conjunction with the National Association of Social Workers, the Child Welfare League also called on states to hire trained social workers as CPS caseworkers.

This is a popular view in the child welfare community. Earlier this month, the Children's Action Alliance brought Richard Gelles, a national expert on the subject, to town. Gelles, interim dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania, told a packed ballroom at the downtown Phoenix Hyatt that Arizona's child welfare system actually ranks in the top half nationally, with a relatively low child fatality rate.

But one area where the state is lacking, he said, is in trained caseworkers.

What does a 23-year-old art history major know about child abuse? Gelles asked. Such people tend to judge a child's situation based on the way the home smells, rather than what's really going on with the family, he said, telling Arizona to hire social workers.

Christina Rissley-Curtis, a trained social worker and professor at Arizona State University, is co-director of ASU's child welfare project. She, too, wants to see social workers as caseworkers.

"I think CPS workers make as serious decisions as doctors do," she says. "They are trying to do the impossible, which is to try to protect every child that comes into their system without enough resources and without enough trained staff. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line somebody's going to get hurt."

But the reality is that CPS can't even find 23-year-old art history majors to take caseworker jobs. About 70 positions are currently open across the state, and to attract trained social workers CPS would have to raise salaries.

Carol Kamin, executive director of the Children's Action Alliance, says those empty positions must be filled with qualified people.

"We can give you lots of recommendations that would make the system better, but in my opinion nothing matters . . . if you don't have decently paid, decently supported workers with decent caseloads," she says.

Kamin, who actually ran CPS herself in the 1980s, says she used to think that the agency needed to be completely dismantled, re-created as a separate children's agency. Now she says that would be "moving chairs on the Titanic," and she worries that, ultimately, the new agency would lose funding.

Napolitano says it's too early to tell if a separate agency is needed. First, she wants to examine resources devoted to CPS and determine if money is being spent correctly.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley says he's as worried about overspending on CPS as he is about underspending. His priorities include creating a new children's agency and a switch for Romley making CPS records and court proceedings public. He supports a bill now making its way through the Legislature that would create a pilot program to open CPS court proceedings. (So does Napolitano.)

First, Romley says, the state needs a clearly articulated policy on child welfare. Napolitano's advisers agree; that's part of the goal of her advisory commission.

But how to agree on a philosophy, and get it down in writing as an official policy?

How to protect children is probably the most difficult conundrum society faces, mainly because the stakes are so high a child's life but also because this issue cuts to the root of the very definition of the role of government: Just how involved should we be in our neighbor's life, and the life of her child?

One of the most frustrating realities of the child welfare reform debate is that there really are no bad guys, only differing perspectives and people trying desperately to do the right thing in situations that have already gone terribly wrong. Generally speaking, there are two camps: family preservation vs. child safety. The family preservationists generally, but not always, conservatives are painted as wanting to keep families together at any cost, even if that means keeping a kid in what is likely an abusive situation. The child safety advocates, who tend to be more liberal in their politics, are described as wanting to yank a kid away from his family when there is the remotest possibility of abuse, without substantiating the abuse first.

The truth is that these camps tend to be more closely aligned than most people will admit. Dozens of child advocates on both sides of the issue were interviewed for this story, and all expressed great concern for child welfare. Sadly, both sides make good arguments: Family preservationists point to instances where children have died in foster care, after being taken from their homes. Just last week, a foster mother was charged with murder for allegedly shaking a baby put in her care; the six-week-old had been born to a drug-addicted mother. Child safety advocates bring up cases where children have died in their own homes, even under CPS supervision, like Anndreah Robertson, who died in 2001 from exposure to crack cocaine. At the time, CPS was investigating Anndreah's mother and grandmother.

The family preservationists insist that of course they don't want to see children left in abusive homes. The child safety advocates insist that they don't want children removed from a home without justification. No one wants a child to be harmed.

The battle between family preservation and child safety has long been waged at the federal level. In the late 1980s, legislation was passed requiring child welfare workers to make every effort to reunite families. A 1997 law relaxed that, moving the policy pendulum closer to child safety.

The family preservationists are a somewhat beleaguered group. Richard Wexler, a former journalist, runs the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Virginia. His group receives funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a well-respected philanthropic organization, and yet child safety advocates like Richard Gelles often manage to steal Wexler's spotlight.

In a letter to New Times describing his mission, Wexler writes, "I do not believe that CPS workers are jack-booted thugs who relish destroying families. I think most of them are well meaning, undertrained, inexperienced and overwhelmed. But . . . I have never heard of even one caseworker being fired, suspended, demoted, criminally prosecuted, attacked in the media or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children. All of those things have happened to workers who left a child in his or her own home and something went wrong."

In Arizona, child welfare policies have moved between the two camps as well sometimes inelegantly, given the particularly divisive nature of the extended child welfare community here. Former governor Hull, who once sat on the Children's Action Alliance board of directors, would be considered a child safety advocate, although a rather weak one. In contrast, the Legislature tended to be dominated by family preservationists throughout the 1990s. For years, lawmakers passed a series of reforms designed to ensure that child removal cases were reviewed quickly, to ensure parents' rights.

In 1990, the Legislature created Removal Review Teams, in which a group of child welfare experts review a case after a child is removed from a home. In 1998, legislation created "Model Court," in which the juvenile court was required to review child removals within seven days. And in 2000, the Legislature created the DES Family Advocacy Office, which allows parents to ask DES for an additional review of a child's removal.

One reform, Model Court, is widely viewed on both sides as a big success. But child safety advocates say that as a whole, the three procedures are duplicative, and a drain on resources. Further, Arizona has a very low rate of substantiating cases of abuse, which child safety advocates attribute in large part to these reforms. For example, in its latest semi-annual report, which measures April to September 2002, CPS reported receiving more than 27,000 calls reporting possible abuse. Of those, more than 12,000 were investigated and only about 1,300 were substantiated as abuse.

Nationally, the substantiation rate is 32 percent, compared with about 15 percent in Arizona, according to the Children's Action Alliance.

Laura Knaperek would like to see even more safeguards put in place, including having a team of community members review removals even before they happen. Knaperek, a former Republican lawmaker from Tempe, was until recently the unofficial leader of the family preservation effort. Before coming to the Legislature, Knaperek worked for the Arizona Consortium for Children with Chronic Illness, where she saw many profoundly disabled children taken from their homes because families were ill-equipped to take care of them. Knaperek thought it better to offer in-home services that would allow children to stay with their families.

So that shadowed Knaperek's perspective on CPS. Because she chaired the House Appropriations Committee for several sessions, she wielded more power than the average lawmaker and made CPS her pet cause.

Knaperek, who lost a state Senate bid last November (more because she was up against popular former Tempe mayor Harry Mitchell than for her views on child welfare), is not popular with many other child welfare advocates. She has a reputation as a my-way-or-the-highway kind of leader, unwilling to compromise. For example, in 1997 she chaired a joint legislative committee designed to change the way all children's services are delivered in Arizona, by streamlining them through neighborhood centers. The committee's voluminous final report never went anywhere.

Knaperek says that's because then-governor Hull's staff told her they were not interested in airing Arizona's problems regarding children's services in public. But others say it was really because the final product was all Knaperek, and no one else.

Chris Cummiskey, a Democrat who served in the Legislature for 12 years and is now a member of the Napolitano administration, was on Knaperek's joint legislative committee, but says he quickly realized she had made up her mind about what should happen before the first hearing. He quit after several frustrating meetings.

"I said, I'm not going to engage in a charade. If you want to do something, go,'" he says.

For her part, Knaperek's feelings are clearly hurt. She feels shunned by the child safety advocates, whom she says get celebrated in Arizona Republic headlines and by the child-safety-minded Children's Action Alliance, while she always gets criticized. She's critical of the newly formed Children's Caucus in the Legislature, an invitation that was extended to Democrats and moderate Republicans but never to her if she was still in the Legislature, she says, even though she cares deeply for children.

"Obviously, if you're not part of the Children's Caucus, you're part of the Anti-Children's Caucus," she says.

Knaperek sees the movement heading away from family preservation.

"This is my own personal opinion, okay?" she says. "There are a lot of reforms that took place over the last six years and there are a lot of people that resent them. And I think those people see an opportunity . . . now that we're gone, to turn back the clock."

Knaperek is not paranoid. That is exactly what is happening. Since she took office in early January, Governor Napolitano has taken every opportunity to encourage CPS caseworkers to remove children when they feel it's necessary.

In early February, Napolitano got two standing ovations at the Children's Action Alliance luncheon.

"Protect the child. I will back you up," the governor said.

Knaperek sees that statement as an affront.

"When it comes to your child, somebody's child, you better be questioning," she says.

Napolitano says she's not telling CPS caseworkers to stop asking questions. "Their number one job is to use their training and their common sense . . . to act in the best interest of the child," she says.

The governor calls the child safety vs. family preservation debate a "false dichotomy."

"Oftentimes," she adds, "the best interest of the child will be to remain in the family. Maybe the family will need some support. . . . By getting into that false choice, we've sent a very mixed message to our CPS caseworkers."

For an outsider, it is difficult to figure out just what is wrong with Arizona's Child Protective Services, because the agency's decisions are cloaked in secrecy.

About the only time the public learns about the workings of the agency is when a child dies in the state's care and all involved in the system agree that's not a fair assessment of what goes on in a department that investigates tens of thousands of leads a year.

In the past five years, only 18 claims were filed against CPS, varying from a kid who fell on Squaw Peak while in a state-run group home, to kids allegedly raped in foster care, to babies beaten or shot by their mothers after visits from CPS.

Insiders say that even CPS can't keep track of its activities, with an unwieldy computer system that makes it difficult to find out the most basic information. For example, ASU's Christina Rissley-Curtis recalls a research project in which she needed to know how many times in a year kids had been moved within the CPS system. She couldn't find that out without reading more than 6,000 cases prohibitively time-consuming.

"They have no capacity for monitoring their caseloads," she says of CPS.

One of the few truly independent people who gets a clear picture of what goes on at CPS on a regular basis is the state ombudsman assigned to the agency.

The CPS ombudsman position was created by the Legislature in 1997, because the volume of complaints against CPS was so much greater than just about any other state agency.

Greta Mang was the CPS ombudsman for the program's first four years. She found her workload overwhelming, sometimes reviewing up to 40 cases at a time, about 500 in all during her time in the job.

Mang agrees that caseworkers are overworked and underpaid, put in dangerous situations alone when police officers would take partners. She investigated all kinds of complaints, and says she didn't see an overwhelming tilt toward either family preservation or child safety, but rather a lack of any cohesive child welfare policy at all.

Yes, many parents had bogus complaints, and most caseworkers were hardworking and well-meaning, but Mang says she did see patterns in behavior among CPS workers that were troubling. Often that would come from a particular office or supervisor. Mang talked openly about her experiences with CPS, but would not share details such as names or office locations.

In one instance, Mang reviewed a case in which a father had sexually abused his daughter. The mother was not aware of the abuse, but when she found out about it, immediately got the child away from him. The caseworker wanted to remove the child from the mother permanently.

"The caseworker said, Well, she might end up with another guy who abuses the daughter,'" Mang recalls. "I was thinking, You can't take her kid away from her because of something she may do in the future.'"

After Mang questioned the decision, CPS stopped the severance proceeding and reviewed the caseworker's other decisions, finding a pattern of overly judgmental behavior, Mang says.

The caseworker was young and pregnant, Mang recalls. "I think she had an idea of what the perfect parent should be."

Yes, training and clearly stated policies would help, Mang says, but ultimately no law or rule will change a caseworker's gut feelings.

"How do you legislate personalities?" she asks.

For her part, Mang found that she constantly challenged her own beliefs of what constitutes a good parent. But not everyone she worked with did.

When she fought to get grandparents custody of kids who had been removed from their parents instead of putting them in foster homes Mang says she was told by one supervisor, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

For the most part, CPS was cooperative, she recalls, but one of Mang's frustrations was that the ombudsman has no authority to do anything but review a case file, investigate and make a report. Many times she could not access information on the grounds that it violated personnel rules.

She worked directly for the Legislature, a setup that was often problematic. Lawmakers would get complaints from constituents, and ask Mang to review their files. Mang did so, and reported back. Some legislators accepted her findings, but others, Mang recalls, insisted that the constituent was always right and would insist that Mang take their side. When she didn't, there were battles.

During her time as CPS ombudsman, Mang saw swamped public defenders who looked at cases minutes before entering the courtroom, and a lack of private lawyers familiar with the intricacies of the child welfare system. She knew of judges who fell asleep during severance hearings. Mang saw psychologists make biased evaluations to keep parents from getting their kids back. Often, the mental health system failed both children and parents, she says, and many times substance abuse services were inadequate.

Mang left the ombudsman's office last year to work with the elderly. Her advice, when it comes to child welfare: "Look at the entire system. Don't just focus on CPS as the entire problem."

That is exactly the point of the governor's CPS Advisory Commission. Many of the seven subcommittees don't directly address CPS at all. The commission includes a group examining the structure of CPS and others that are looking at CPS reports, records and hearings. But the remaining four subcommittees are examining juvenile justice, health care, education and community services.

Privately, even the governor's biggest fans call the process "pot-stirring," and wonder how much it can accomplish, particularly given the current budget scenario.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley is blunt about it.

"The concern that I have with the governor's commission is that it has too many moving parts," he says. "I would have done it very differently. It's a bit too ambitious. It may die of its own weight."

It was easy to see Romley's point last week, at the second meeting of the Records subcommittee. The subcommittee includes an impressive group of policymakers and line staff, including DES executives, attorneys, social service providers, ground-level CPS caseworkers, even a pediatrician.

The task of examining the CPS reporting process is huge, encompassing not just how to screen potential abuse cases and investigate them, but when to remove kids and how to deliver services.

What is striking about this group is that many don't even know the most basic laws. The group's first session was devoted to brainstorming about things that work and don't work within the system. (They came up with 38 good things, and 102 bad things.) Then they asked for copies of some statutes and definitions pertaining to CPS. That discussion took up much of the second meeting.

More than an hour into the second meeting (each is scheduled for just 90 minutes), one member finally raised his hand to say that all of this talk was meaningless without a mission statement. Most of the remainder of the time was devoted to a debate over family preservation vs. child safety.

While others looked at their watches, obviously concerned that precious time was disappearing, Noreen Sharp beamed.

Sharp is the mastermind behind the advisory commission. With close-cropped gray hair and an impish quality, she's a whirling dervish in a molasses-slow government bureaucracy. She talks constantly, and is fond of long analogies.

Sharp is either a genius, or she's completely full of it. Her résumé, which includes not only years of experience in human services in Arizona but also a law degree and full-fledged membership in the Sisters of St. Dominic of Adrian Michigan (she's a bona fide nun), suggests the former.

Most recently, as chief counsel for the Child and Family Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office under Napolitano, Sharp dramatically reduced the backlog of child dependency cases (children waiting in foster care for permanent placements), and ran committees that, on a smaller scale, mirrored her current efforts. She gets high marks across the board from people who worked with her.

"She is the single most energetic person I know," Napolitano says. "I think she's the right person in the right job at the right time."

The CPS Advisory Commission is Sharp's only duty now, and it will keep her busy. Each subcommittee is set to meet seven times, and the final report which Sharp says will include legislative, policy and fiscal recommendations is due in June.

Sharp seems unconcerned by the pending budget crisis, saying that the governor's budget is much more compassionate toward children but not explaining how Napolitano will get it passed.

Money's not the solution, in any case, according to Sharp. For her part, the governor says it's too early to anticipate the final outcome.

"I would say it in this order. It's a matter of leadership and leadership and leadership and management and administration and analysis and thinking and money," Sharp says. "It doesn't hurt, but money is not going to help you do anything if you don't understand what you're doing. I never put money first. Never."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >