Longform

Fostering Sexual Abuse

Page 9 of 10

It's all part of the new, improved CPS.

Are the Children Protected?
For at least a decade, Arizona's foster-care system has been studied, investigated, criticized and reformed.

Liberal state legislators and child advocates have criticized CPS for not removing children from abusive or neglectful natural parents.

CPS has been chastised by conservatives for removing children from abusive or neglectful natural parents.

"Some people believe CPS is too intrusive; some people believe CPS is not aggressive enough. It makes it difficult for the front-line worker. No matter what you do, you get criticized," says Hart, of the division of Youth and Family Services.

"It's a pretty challenging profession because you don't hear about the successes," he says.

"We've got over 6,000 kids in [foster] care today and literally scores come in and scores go out with successful placement. You don't see those kinds of reports. But needless to say, if there is one [bad] incident in the system, you read about those and people remember them, as opposed to the successes."

The current CPS drive toward keeping the biological family together (and avoiding foster care unless absolutely necessary) was fueled in the early 1990s by former Arizona legislator and current U.S. Representative Matt Salmon, a Republican.

Many child advocates claimed that the Foster Care Review Board, an organization of volunteers formed in 1978 to review cases and make recommendations to judges about whether a child should stay in foster care, was essentially ineffectual.

Salmon held legislative hearings. Conservative legislators and the ACLU both concluded that CPS was too hasty in removing kids from their homes and banishing them to foster care. In the years that followed, the Legislature and DES instituted a number of reforms meant to follow the conservative creed of keeping families together. Among the reforms:

* A 24-hour child abuse hot line manned by trained social workers.
* Response to all reports of child abuse made through the hot line.
* "Family Builders." Starting in 1998, so-called "low-priority reports" (like complaints about dirty houses) are now referred to private subcontractors who assess conditions in a household and provide services to the family on a voluntary basis.

* A computerized database of all CPS cases, including caseworker notes, helps CPS quickly access information about a single child.

* Model Court--brings biological family and CPS into court within five to seven days of a child being taken into custody to decide what happens to that child.

* "Childhelp USA." Starting in 1998, this private subcontractor began providing a "collaborative effort" between police, the medical community and CPS in investigating child abuse.

* A CPS ombudsman who investigates complaints from the public.
* Revamping of CPS guidelines. Among other things, new guidelines no longer require caseworkers to visit foster kids once a month, as long as the children are visited by less-trained parental aides or other professionals.

The class-action lawsuit seeks to have the court force CPS to require caseworkers to visit foster kids at least once a month.

"Caseworkers need to know the children. At a minimum, they should visit the children once a month, but it should be more," says Beth Rosenberg, a former DES administrator who is now a senior associate for Children's Action Alliance, a child advocacy group.

CPS caseworkers continue to be overworked and underpaid. The highest salary a caseworker can make without legislative approval is $29,000. The Legislature must approve all subsequent raises up to a ceiling of $40,000.

Annual turnover of CPS caseworkers is 30 percent.
Because of the high turnover and low pay, caseworkers with less than two years' experience often make major decisions about children and families.

Foster parents continue to be underpaid as well. The state currently pays foster parents $358 monthly to care for a child. In 1995, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated the average cost of caring for a foster child to be $572 monthly.

This year, the Legislature refused DES's request to increase reimbursement to foster parents. The shortfall is one reason the state continues to suffer a shortage of foster homes. Currently, 2,000 foster homes are licensed to accommodate 6,000 foster kids.

In 1997, the Arizona auditor general noted that DES needed to recruit more foster homes, and that oversight of group homes for foster children is "inadequate."

No one knows if any of the reforms instituted in the past five years have reduced the incidence of sexual abuse. CPS does not keep statistics on how many children were sexually abused in foster care.

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Terry Greene Sterling