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.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.