Suffer the Children

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Emily Mays was dead before her second birthday. "Blunt force trauma to the head," said the medical examiner. Murder, said the police.

There were bruises on Emily's body, and scrapes and bruises on her head. Emily's caregivers, a Tucson couple, were charged with felony child abuse.

It sounds like any one of the horrific cases that made headlines in 2002. At the time, crisis was in the air: Thirty-six children died that year because of maltreatment — a new state record. Caseworkers at Child Protective Services were overworked and underpaid, to the point that they simply couldn't do the work necessary to keep kids safe. The Arizona Republic spent months chronicling the sad stories and calling for systemic change.


Child Protective Services

Janet Napolitano, elected governor that fall, made the newspaper's mission her own. Fixing CPS, she announced, would be one of her top priorities. Children needed to be protected.

The new governor wasn't messing around. Under her tenure, CPS has seen big changes: more money, more training for caseworkers, more new programs to reach at-risk families.

You'd think that kids now must be a lot safer than they were in 2002.

But Emily Mays didn't die in 2002.

She died three years into Napolitano's tenure, in the summer of 2005 — after the reforms, after massive budget increases, after Napolitano's vow that kids need to be kept safe above all else.

And Emily's wasn't an isolated case. You don't read about it in the papers, but the latest statistics show even more children in Arizona dying from maltreatment than before Napolitano took office.

In 2004, it was 40 kids — and CPS had prior involvement with 18 of them. Eight of the cases were actually open at the time of the child's death.

Part of the problem is that real reform takes time. It's not fair to expect progress overnight.

But it's also true that, for all her good intentions and the excellent work done by her commission, some critics believe Napolitano made a serious misstep early in her tenure.

By equating child safety with removing children from their parents, Napolitano triggered a huge increase in removals — removals that came before the agency had the infrastructure in place to handle them.

There were only about 6,200 children in foster care when she took office; by June 2006, there were a staggering 10,166.

And though Napolitano fought for a $35 million raise for the agency in the fall of 2003, the Legislature didn't agree until that December. And that was for $17 million, less than half of what she requested.

Naturally, it took months after that to hire additional workers — and months after that to train them. (And by the time they were trained, enough workers had quit that the agency was still running on empty.)

And so the influx of foster kids meant even more work for a staff that was already grossly overburdened. And it meant more kids living with strangers, or, worse, left for months on end in group homes and shelters.

One of the kids in foster care was Emily Mays. Her foster parents now face felony child abuse charges in Pima County.

Napolitano vowed that children needed to be taken from their homes to keep them safe. But as Mays' short life illustrates all too well, it's never that easy.

On Napolitano's fourth day as governor, she spoke at a child abuse conference in Mesa. There, she told CPS workers that they no longer needed to make "reasonable efforts" to keep a family together — if a child's safety was at risk, they needed to get the kid out of there.

It sounds uncontroversial; what's more important, after all, than keeping a child safe? But to anyone familiar with debates over CPS policy, or the Republic's coverage of maltreatment deaths, the language was loaded.

CPS workers had long been instructed to make "reasonable efforts" to keep families together. But the Republic griped that the policy left workers with competing mandates: family togetherness, or safety? Napolitano's words in Mesa, and the changes that were subsequently codified in the agency's mission statement, were a public directive to err on the side of safety.

No one disputes that many kids, unfortunately, need to be taken from their homes, and taken quickly. But to some critics, Napolitano's message was this: Don't worry about making a rush to judgment. Better to overreact.

By the time of her first State of the State speech, Napolitano had already created an advisory commission to recommend major changes for the agency.

In the four years since, many of the commission's recommendations have become law. Salaries for caseworkers have increased dramatically; so has training. Funding for the Division of Children, Youth, and Families, which includes CPS, is way up: Even with a resistant Legislature, Napolitano was able to increase the agency's budget significantly from 2004 to 2006.

But for better or worse, her January 2003 decree — more than the subsequent common-sense reforms — has defined CPS during her tenure.

CPS statistics are released on a semi-annual basis that doesn't correspond with the calendar or political changes. But the first full year of data under Napolitano shows a record number of kids being removed from their homes: It's actually a 32 percent increase from the last full year of data under Napolitano's predecessor, Jane Hull.

That happened before the agency could hire many new workers.

And the numbers continued to rise steadily, with a 48 percent increase over the baseline in Napolitano's second year. The six-month period ending this past March was the first without an increase since Napolitano took office — but CPS still removed 3,753 kids, 41 percent more than in the last period under Hull.

"You had a caseworker fury in removing kids," says Representative Laura Knaperek, R-Mesa, a longtime critic of Napolitano's CPS policies. "Even if they didn't think they should remove the child, they did it anyway — because they were afraid not to."

The goal was admirable. The results, not so much so:

• Despite the increased number of kids coming into foster care, adoptions out of the system stayed flat. And so the number of kids in out-of-home care swelled from just over 6,000 in 2003 to more than 10,000 today — a 62 percent increase.

• New foster homes didn't keep pace with the demand, so many children ended up in shelters. In 2003, 2,754 kids were stuck at shelters or group homes for more than 21 days. Some kids stayed for more than a year.

• The law requires CPS workers to visit kids in foster care once a month. Under Napolitano, the percentage of kids getting the mandated visits has actually dropped to an embarrassing 64 percent — 5 percent below the last two years of Hull's administration.

• Despite salary increases for caseworkers, turnover hovered near 20 percent until recently. Inexperienced workers are still forced to make life-changing decisions on tight deadlines.

• While the Legislature allotted money for new positions, CPS can't fill them fast enough to make up for people who quit. There are currently 53 caseworker vacancies. A six-week training session for new hires means that another 186 are in class rather than on the job, leaving co-workers to cover for them.

• As a result, caseloads are far too high: Investigators average 15 cases a month instead of 10, per CPS standards. Workers handling ongoing cases are in even worse shape — typically exceeding CPS standards by more than 10 cases a month.

CPS staffers say that, just like before Napolitano took office, they're too busy to do their job properly. The agency's computer system, they say, is still a redundant, confusing mess that saps far too much of their time.

And now they have more kids than ever to monitor.

Napolitano vigorously defends her record. Although she didn't have time for an interview, her deputy chief of staff, Mike Haener, said in a written statement that the governor is especially proud of statistics that show increases in the number of children returned to their parents from 2003 to 2006, as well as an increase in the number of foster homes available.

"Piecemeal changes had been tried in the past with few results," Haener wrote. "A complete overhaul was necessary. It was difficult; we all know that change can be hard and it takes time. But in the long run, the sustainable changes we have made and are continuing to make will lead to better outcomes for children and families for years to come."

Indeed, CPS's top brass cite a number of promising programs and point to statistics that seem to be improving. They boast great progress, to the point of sounding almost giddy.

But by any statistical measure, and for any worker on the ground floor, the past four years have been difficult.

"I don't think you can ever say that making sure children are safe is a bad thing," says Alissa Scott, a CPS supervisor who left in 2004. "But I can't say the agency was ready for the increased workload. We lost a lot of good people.

"The expectations are reasonable for the safety of the children," she adds. "But they were unreasonable for the workers."

As any caseworker can tell you, there's no such thing as a completely innocent victim. CPS caseworkers don't just show up in the middle of the night and take happy, healthy babies from perfect homes.

There is always something complicating the situation: a drug-addicted boyfriend, a child who's acting out sexually, a toddler roaming the street.

Robin Scoins admits that her case, too, had its complications. She knows it was ridiculous not to realize she was pregnant until just weeks before giving birth.

But what happened after that wasn't just ridiculous, it was a nightmare: a classic example of how faulty evidence — pushed by a caseworker without the time to do her homework — can trump the facts.

It started after the birth of Scoins' third child, a boy. Then 35, Scoins was seriously depressed. She had good reason: Her then-boyfriend was an alcoholic, she says, and had been abusive in the past. The relationship was on its last legs. And Scoins' oldest son, then 14, had been diagnosed with a host of mental-health problems.

The doctor at Southwest Behavioral Health Services put Scoins on heavy-duty antidepressants, according to records provided to New Times by Scoins' lawyer, Scott Ambrose.

For the seven months that Scoins saw counselors at Southwest, her doctors reported that she was anxious, worried about her older boy, and depressed about her relationship ending, records show.

But they never once suggested that she was a bad parent. And they never noted a suspicion of drug use.

Then Scoins found out she was pregnant again. Very, very pregnant.

She'd gained weight with her previous pregnancy, so she was already heavier than usual. She complained to her doctors about nausea, and irregular periods, but records show that she assumed it was a side effect from the meds.

So in early September 2003, Scoins found out she was pregnant, and on September 27 her little boy was born — two months early, weighing only three and a half pounds.

And that's when Scoins, who insists she'd never used illegal drugs, tested positive for amphetamines.

Even the hospital's own test results warn that antidepressants, like the ones Scoins was using, can create a "false positive" for amphetamines. So can cold medicine, which she'd also been on.

Not only did the baby test negative for everything, but Scoins subsequently passed two more drug tests.

No matter. When Scoins' boy (called C.Q. in court papers to protect his privacy) was big enough to leave the hospital in November, Scoins didn't get a call to pick him up. Instead, a CPS worker left her a note.

CPS had taken the baby.

The reason: According to the caseworker, Scoins had "tested positive for methamphetamines."

Amphetamines are present in any number of drugs, not just crystal meth. But while CPS caseworkers deal with thousands of meth-related cases in the course of a year, the staffer on Scoins' case didn't seem to realize that. Nor did she acknowledge that Scoins' amphetamine "positive" was in dispute.

Instead, CPS's report claimed that Scoins was a drug addict. The caseworker wrote that she'd "abused substances for a long period of time" — an absurd claim for which the worker offered no supporting documentation. The report also claimed that Scoins had been homeless and living in a car. Again, completely false.

Even worse, in the same report, the caseworker claimed that Scoins' baby had yet to be tested for drugs.

That wasn't true. C.Q.'s tests were complete within days of his birth, two months before. He was negative for all drugs.

Taking C.Q. amounted to a rush to judgment that may have been triggered by good intentions — but doesn't hold up to scrutiny today.

Scoins was devastated at losing her baby.

"I was just a mess," Scoins says. "I kept thinking, there's some mistake. I've never used drugs; they must have me confused with someone else. When they find out, this will all be over. But that never happened."

Instead, CPS only let Scoins see C.Q. during supervised visits. And Scoins' caseworker filed paperwork to take away her other three children, too.

Ultimately, the agency dropped its threat; when C.Q. was nine months old, CPS finally returned him to his mother. But that was only thanks to an attorney friend who handled Scoins' case for free.

"I probably would not have my son back today without that," she says.

Throughout a three-hour interview with New Times at the public library in Surprise, Scoins' two youngest boys interrupt frequently to show their mother books, pester for her library card, and ask for help with the computer. They have a warm rapport; Scoins is affectionate with them, and they clearly adore her in return.

Since her battle for C.Q., Scoins founded the Arizona Family Rights Advocacy Institute and devotes much of her time to helping families across the state fighting CPS. She doesn't get paid, yet she estimates she easily spends more than 60 hours a week taking their calls, helping them with paperwork, even showing up in court to offer an assist.

She knows the dark side of Napolitano's push for safety first. She's lived it.

"This wasn't even a case where they took the kid and asked questions later," says her attorney, Ambrose, disgusted. "In this case, they didn't even ask questions."

As a matter of policy, CPS officials cannot discuss individual cases, except in cases of child death. But its administrator, Janice Mickens, says the agency had no choice but to increase removals at the beginning of Napolitano's tenure.

Prior to that, CPS used to farm out less-serious complaints to a network of community and volunteer agencies — about 6,000 calls a year.

Napolitano decreed that CPS would investigate every complaint it received. And Mickens says the increased investigations account for the rise in removals.

But while even critics of the agency applaud the "every complaint" policy, they question why so many kids had to be moved into foster care rather than monitored in-home.

That was clearly Napolitano's wish; she gave a speech in April 2003 where she stated plainly, "We cannot both assure the child's safety and guarantee to keep the family home. We must choose."

The problem with that logic? Well, when it comes to children and safety, there's rarely 100 percent assurance for anything.

Many homes aren't safe. But every year, kids die in foster care, too. And sometimes, a home that seems perfectly safe is the one that proves deadly.

Wayne Holder is the Albuquerque-based director of ACTION for Child Protection, which offers technical assistance to child welfare agencies. He believes that thinking like Napolitano's is old-fashioned. People used to think "safety" and "family" were contrary goals, he says. Not anymore.

"The nature of this business is to have an either/or dichotomy, but we've been making efforts to think a bit more dynamically," Holder says. "There is now a growing recognition that even removing children from their homes doesn't necessarily mean they're safe."

Carole Shauffer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, agrees. Her agency is a public-interest, nonprofit law firm that litigates on behalf of kids in juvenile detention or bad foster care situations.

"Any time you get a lot of child deaths, you see a state do 'safety first, let's remove every single kid,'" she says.

But that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do, Shauffer says. "Many, many children can be kept safe at home. Safety first should not mean removal first."

After all, most parents caught up in the CPS system aren't the sort of abusers who end up on the evening news, carted to jail after systematically torturing their kids for months.

The majority of cases involve neglect, not abuse — and it's not only the politically correct who are concerned by the gross overrepresentation of poor and minority kids in foster care across the country. Statistics show that alcoholics in Paradise Valley typically don't attract CPS attention. Single moms living in west Phoenix do.

And foster care, as it turns out, is hardly a panacea.

A study published in Development and Psychopathology earlier this year by researchers at the University of Minnesota suggests, surprisingly, that foster care may actually be worse for kids than abusive homes.

The professors surveyed records from 189 high-risk children in Minneapolis, from birth to their 16th birthdays.

Researchers split the children into three groups: The first spent time in foster care. The second group suffered similar maltreatment — but weren't removed from their homes. And the third was a control group: children from poor families, but without abuse or neglect.

Naturally, the control group performed the best; practically from the beginning, they scored better developmentally than the mistreated kids.

Initially, there was no such difference between the kids who ended up in foster care and those stuck in abusive homes. But once the kids were sent to foster care, they began to perform demonstrably worse than their stay-in-home counterparts.

Even after their release from care, the foster kids had more problems.

"[T]he results support a general view that foster care may lead to an increase in behavior problems that continues after exiting the system," the researchers concluded. The results, they wrote, "raise cautious concern regarding the impact of child care on development."

That's almost certainly not the fault of foster parents, much less the kids themselves. Few researchers blame the quality of foster homes; instead, they believe the problem comes from children being wrenched from their parents.

And that may be why CPS executives no longer present removals as an unqualified positive. Instead, they talk about keeping families together, monitoring children in their homes, and new initiatives to get support services to needy families.

Indeed, ask CPS administrator Janice Mickens what she's most excited about, and she'll cite a program called Family to Family, developed by the respected Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. In place now in Maricopa County and Tucson, CPS hopes to roll it out statewide in five years.

Its goal is to work with families to reduce kids' time in foster care and to increase placements with family members or trusted friends.

"We're saying child safety is paramount," Mickens says, "but that children belong in families. The focus is on safety and trying to help them within their families — whether that's their family of origin or relatives."

Another sign of the agency's movement since Napolitano's original mandate: The second program Mickens singles out for praise is CPS's in-home services unit, which monitors at-risk kids, but doesn't remove them.

CPS actually applied for, and got, a waiver from the feds. The waiver lets the agency use federal funds typically earmarked for kids in foster care on programs to support families, connecting them with services like drug counseling or even food stamps.

"It allows us to work with families at a much earlier stage and prevent them coming back into the system," Mickens says. "In the past, with cases like this, there was no one to send them. We'd say, 'Okay, well, I'll keep this case open.' But then we'd get another report — because they just weren't getting services."

Richard Wexler is the director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a group that believes far too many children are placed in foster care. He was a critic of Napolitano's early speeches on child safety. By "throwing gas on the fire" and focusing on maltreatment deaths, he says, she sparked a panic.

But Wexler says he's noticed a real change in Arizona. He's convinced that Napolitano has consciously backed away from her previous strategy.

"Essentially, everybody involved in fomenting the panic now realizes it was a terrible mistake," he claims.

(Napolitano's deputy, Haener, says the governor has not had a change of heart. "Safety is and must be the top priority at CPS," he says. The increase in kids, he says, was absolutely necessary, and due to "real reforms that helped us to better identify risk factors for children.")

And Wexler's not willing to let Napolitano off the hook that easily anyway. After all, he notes, there are still more than 10,000 kids in foster care. And CPS defends its actions in 2003, even if the agency's now changing course.

"Until people are ready to say out loud, 'What we did in 2003 was flat wrong, and we have to reverse course,'" he says, "this isn't going to get any better."

Wexler may be too harsh. But it's clear that keeping kids safe is much more complicated than Napolitano initially suggested.

Some foster parents may need as much intervention and monitoring as some birth parents. And under Napolitano, that's actually happened less frequently than under Hull — occasionally, with disastrous results.

Patrick Traufler Jr. was born just nine months before Robin Scoins' son C.Q. Like C.Q., he was taken from the hospital and immediately placed into foster care.

But Patrick really did have drugs in his system, court records show. And rather than ultimately finding an adoptive family, he died before he was a year old.

CPS had placed Patrick with Angela Monroy, a young Phoenix mother. Monroy wasn't just raising two kids of her own, she also had another foster child — another boy who'd been born to a drug-addicted mother, says Brad Astrowsky, who handled the case as a Maricopa County prosecutor. (The case is still pending, but Astrowsky has left the office for private practice.)

Monroy's husband worked the night shift, Astrowsky says. And that left Angela Monroy as virtually the sole caregiver for four very young children.

"It wasn't as if Ms. Monroy was an evil person who set out to kill the child," Astrowsky says. "She was a young mother in over her head, who started out with good intentions, but was allowed to be in over her head by the state."

After Patrick died, investigators found that her other foster child, too, had suffered abuse. Prosecutors charged Angela Monroy with shaking and smothering Patrick to death — and also with fracturing his foster brother's forearm.

It was a horrible ending, made even worse by the fact that no one could argue that Patrick Traufler Jr. should have stayed with his biological parents. His mother couldn't even manage to successfully sue the county. (She filed suit, but it was thrown out after her lawyers failed to hit their deadlines, records show.) Court records also reveal that the baby's presumed father, Patrick Traufler Sr., proved not to be the biological dad.

It would be tempting to conclude that these cases are tough, and leave it at that. But Astrowsky believes it exemplifies a more systemic problem.

He believes the agency must remove children when they're in danger; he doesn't fall into the camp of those who would always support birth parents.

But by not paying better attention to Patrick's situation in foster care, he says, CPS messed up.

The timing may have been a factor. After all, little Patrick's death came six weeks into Napolitano's term as governor. He was placed in the Monroys' house in the midst of the frenzy of removals, driven by the command to remove kids first and ask questions later.

During the six-month period that includes Napolitano's first three months in office and Patrick's placement with the Monroys, the number of children removed from their homes grew almost 12 percent from the six months before.

The state didn't have enough foster parents, much less caseworkers to supervise them. And the number of caseworkers, naturally, didn't grow 12 percent in this period. Not even close.

And so the caseworker who visited Monroy's home wasn't just young, Astrowsky says. She was an intern.

Even worse, she was an intern who already personally knew the family, Astrowsky says. (Her fiancé was a cousin of Monroy's husband.) That may have given her reason not to question the family's placement, no matter how much stress Angela Monroy was under.

The intern disclosed the conflict to her supervisor, Astrowsky says. But the supervisor decided it wasn't a problem.

And two months after he was born, Patrick Traufler Jr. was dead.

In its response to the lawsuit from Patrick's mother, CPS defended its actions as appropriate. Monroy's criminal case is still pending.

But even today, despite a few hundred new positions added to CPS's roster, workers who monitor kids like Patrick hardly have time to do their jobs.

The agency codified its caseload standards in 2005: Investigators, who make the initial determination whether children need to be in foster care, should take no more than 10 new cases a month. "Out of home" case managers, like those supervising Patrick Traufler Jr., are supposed to handle no more than 16.

Even those numbers seem high, but the reality is much, much higher. In June 2006, the most recent month available, the average "out of home" manager handled 25 cases.

And that's actually lower than many months in the recent past. In October 2005, for example, monthly "out of home" caseloads averaged 32.5 cases — double the agency's standard.

"Unless you gave up most of your personal life and worked continuously, you could not keep up," says Alissa Scott, who left the agency after almost four years in 2004. "I was a single parent, dropping my daughter off at a day care at 6:30 a.m., and they'd be waiting at the door when I showed up at night because they were closing."

Workers, too, are plagued by the stress of making life-altering decisions. They're damned in the newspapers if they don't remove kids — but reviled by parents when they do.

"The job is a 24-hour-a-day job, whether people want to acknowledge that or not," Scott says.

As a result of heavy workloads, some foster homes get little scrutiny. The law requires caseworkers to visit kids in foster care once a month. But throughout Napolitano's tenure, that's happened, on average, for just 64 percent of foster kids.

That's 5 percent below the agency's average in 2001 and 2002, according to records.

Foster parents like Angela Monroy are an anomaly. According to statistics Arizona reports to the federal government, fewer than 1 percent of kids in foster care here have suffered abuse. And while death gets the headlines, it's not what most CPS workers deal with on a daily basis.

But a far more systemic problem dogged CPS during the Napolitano-era foster care boom: dumping kids in shelters or group homes for months on end.

Marsha Porter, herself a former CPS worker, is the longtime executive director of nonprofit Crisis Nursery in central Phoenix. A slender woman with a stylish blond shag, she's happy to give a tour of the Crisis Nursery campus on Roosevelt Street, and it's easy to see why: It's like a college dorm for kids, with bedrooms, common areas for play, and a sunny backyard strewn with toys.

But the place wasn't initially designed for foster care, as Porter readily attests. Crisis Nursery began as a place where parents could voluntarily drop off kids if they felt overwhelmed. As long as the parents didn't disappear, Porter says, the agency didn't alert authorities, and mom got a break.

Only later did the nursery, and others like it, start accepting contracts to house kids while foster homes could be found.

From that point, it became only too easy for CPS to leave kids there for months on end. CPS workers preoccupied with new, urgent cases didn't always have the time to return to children they'd placed in shelters. After all, places like Crisis Nursery are nothing if not safe — and in the short term, that can seem like enough.

But then the short term turned into the long term. And suddenly kids were staying in shelters for months, or even a year.

Bonnie Cohn is a former CPS worker who started a five-bed shelter, Marcus House, in 1995. Like Porter, she felt she was providing a valuable service to her young charges — but was sometimes surprised at how long kids stayed before CPS found them placements.

"We had a sibling pair here for a full year," she says. "Then they were moved to foster parents who wouldn't take them — so they came back for another two months. And after that, CPS put them with a relative who hadn't seen them in six months!"

The Youth Law Center in San Francisco had long been critical of shelters, particularly when kids are extremely young. In 2004, the Center turned its attention to Arizona.

"It is not safe to put an infant in a group home for a long period of time," says Carole Shauffer, the director. "It may be physically safe, but it is not — and I can say with 100 percent certainty — not psychologically safe or developmentally safe."

The problem, Shauffer says, is that kids in shelters are cared for by staffers who come and go, rather than a single parent or couple they can count on. While there haven't been extensive studies of the impact of shelter stays in this country, Shauffer cites studies of kids coming out of orphanages in Asia and Eastern Europe, who often show developmental problems even after adoption.

That may be an exaggeration; nothing about Crisis Nursery resembles a grim Romanian orphanage. But it's also easy to see why homes are better than institutions, no matter how cheerful.

And so Shauffer's group threatened Arizona with a lawsuit over the shelter stays. Only then did CPS commit to no longer using the shelters as a long-term placement for kids. (CPS also agreed not to place kids younger than 3 in shelters, unless special circumstances exist.)

"Then we had so many foster homes lined up for these kids and the children removed from Marcus House so quickly, it made your head spin," Cohn recalls.

Porter says that Crisis Nursery is trying to reposition itself now that there's no steady stream of long-term CPS placements. But Marcus House ended up folding under the new policy; it couldn't stay afloat without CPS's endless supply of $110-a-day placements.

"Really, I don't know why they didn't beef up the foster care system much sooner," Cohn says. "They were obviously spending a lot of money on shelters, and that wasn't cheap for them."

But with so many problems to address in the short term, the big picture wasn't always in focus.

Kris Jacober, director of the Arizona Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents, generally praises Napolitano's efforts and the reform process. But she says that she and other foster parents have pushed CPS to do more for foster care recruitment.

"We sat on every committee, and so we know reforms are coming," she says. "But where the rubber meets the road, we're not seeing a lot of what's supposed to be happening."

Foster parents wanted a statewide campaign. As a woman who runs her own marketing and public relations company, Jacober knows what that should look like.

It hasn't happened yet.

"I still don't see a billboard," she says, sighing.

The number of foster homes has increased 16 percent since Napolitano took office, records show. Mickens says the agency is now focused on targeted recruitment, in hopes of keeping kids within their communities and even the same school district.

And, recently, CPS has done a good job of increasing the numbers of foster beds available — which means that more foster parents are willing to take multiple placements or sibling groups.

Records show that the number of kids in shelters has finally dropped.

After the Youth Law Center's lawsuit threat, and with Crisis Nursery's blessing, CPS assigned a caseworker to the nursery. The goal is to keep the kids there from falling through the cracks and find them foster homes quickly, rather than just dumping them.

The shelters are not yet empty. According to the most recent statistics, for June 2006, 806 kids have been living in shelters for 21 days or more. The average length of stay is 87 days.

Mickens, CPS's administrator, says those are mostly sibling groups and hard-to-place kids.

But Shauffer says the state is "not hitting the marks" that it agreed to in order to avoid a suit. Still, she feels confident that they can keep working together.

"I believe the governor is actually committed to ending the use of group care, and understands the problems with it," she says. "The question is how quickly they're committed to moving — and how much of a priority it is. That's really the question."

On one subject, Napolitano has earned raves from both top CPS staffers and the constituencies that interact with the agency: her willingness to listen.

Christa Drake, an alumna of Arizona's foster care system and director of a Tucson-based program called In My Shoes, recalls attending a forum where Napolitano took suggestions from the community on CPS reform.

"There were people who'd had their children taken away, and they were just yelling at the governor," Drake recalls. "But we talked to her about what we were hoping to do with In My Shoes, and she put our peer mentoring program into her 'Blueprint for Success' as a statewide model. She actually listened. And I think she did a wonderful job."

Jacober, director of Arizona's foster parent support group, agrees. When her group insisted on a voice in the reform process, they found Napolitano was willing to hear them out.

"She said, 'I will support you,' and she has never wavered from that," Jacober says.

Among top staffers at CPS, the mood is optimistic. Mickens, who's worked for the agency since 1985, says she's never witnessed such excitement.

"It is a wonderful time to be working at CPS," Mickens says, "the best four years I've had in the whole time I've been at the agency."

The big question is whether that excitement is going to translate into actual, statistical results — and whether it's shared by workers, whose job stress is enormous and whose caseloads never seem to shrink.

In the past year, turnover among caseworkers and their supervisors has finally shown dramatic improvement. That could make a big change.

But in some ways, workers' voices are quieter than ever before. Legislators critical of CPS, like Representative Knaperek and Senator Karen Johnson, a conservative Republican from Mesa, say that they used to get calls from CPS workers all the time, seeking help or trying to expose problems they'd witnessed.

Now they don't get such calls. They believe the problems are still happening, but that caseworkers are afraid to speak out.

One caseworker, who stepped forward to testify before a legislative committee last year, says that Mickens called the night before he was scheduled to testify. She tried to talk him out of speaking for 45 minutes, he says.

The caseworker testified anyway, detailing numerous problems with the in-home unit in his Kingman district and the overwork that plagues CPS workers. After his testimony, the caseworker says he was then repeatedly denied promotions. Last week, he resigned. (Because he is seeking a job in another state, he asked New Times not to use his name.)

For whatever reason, CPS is no longer a subject that gets much media attention. The Republic was up in arms when 36 kids died in 2002. But though state records show that another 77 kids died in 2003 and 2004, they hardly rated a mention. The reporter who once wrote in-depth reports on child death now covers Nutcracker auditions and files stories helping parents decode their teenagers' slang.

And it isn't just the Republic. Although CPS reports are almost always confidential, the agency can release summaries at the media's request in cases where children die.

In 2004 and 2005, reporters asked for summaries in only four cases, according to records CPS provided to New Times.

There are less gory examples. CPS began issuing a regular bulletin called "Reform Watch" to keep outsiders posted on its progress; the bulletins petered out, then finally stopped abruptly a year ago.

And then there's the departure of David Berns. Berns, who had run a CPS-style agency in Colorado Springs, was praised as a visionary with a national reputation when Napolitano hired him to run CPS's umbrella agency in 2003. But while his arrival came with great hoopla, his departure this summer, after less than three years on the job, barely rated a mention.

Berns declined New Times' requests for an interview.

Indeed, despite the good cheer at the top, there's some indication that CPS continues to be plagued by poor morale and caseworker burnout at the bottom.

Last week, Brenda Truesdell, a CPS supervisor with the Kingman district for five years, resigned from the agency. The next day, she came to Phoenix to testify in a closed Senate hearing room in front of several legislators.

Truesdell described a scenario where everyone is overworked except a top-heavy management team, where training is ineffective, where even the most inexperienced caseworkers must handle complex cases, just because there isn't anyone else.

A tall, thin woman with military crispness, Truesdell described a box of nearly 200 cases that's sat in her office for months. She couldn't get overtime approved to enter the information into the agency's archaic computer system.

If a new complaint comes in about one of the cases stuck in the box, CPS would never know it, Truesdell explains. The data from the earlier report, after all, simply hasn't been logged into the computer.

"I'm no longer willing to work for an organization that puts money above the safety of children," she told the legislators. "I'm not going to do it."

Truesdell explained that Napolitano's much-vaunted Core training program puts new caseworkers in the classroom for a six-week course. But after taking the class herself, she understood why new workers often seemed so ill-prepared.

There was no test at the end of the course to make sure workers "got" it. And since training is run by the central office instead of district staff, supervisors like Truesdell get no information on what the students have mastered and where they still need more help.

"It costs $20,000 to $25,000 to send them through [six] weeks of Core, when you add up hotels and food and reimbursement for gas," Truesdell told Senator Karen Johnson, whose mouth nearly hit the table. "When I think of the staff I could have with the amount of money spent on Core . . ."

Throughout more than two hours of a question-and-answer session, Truesdell painted a bleak picture of some of the same programs that Mickens praised to New Times the week before.

Take the in-home services division. Truesdell says it's been so understaffed in Kingman that caseworkers from other units have gotten calls from families asking why no one ever followed up with them. Other cases, Truesdell says, were closed in just a few weeks — hardly enough time to monitor a family's progress. Even worse, she named CPS offices in several cities that have yet to set up an in-home unit.

(CPS spokeswoman Liz Barker Alvarez denies this, saying that every office has in-home workers, if not a full unit. But she admits that rural areas pose special challenges.)

Overall, Truesdell's testimony painted a chilling contrast to the glowing reports from CPS administrators and people outside the system.

Napolitano promised to reform the agency to make children safe. Her deputy, Haener, says she's convinced she's done that.

The foundation has been laid for real progress, he writes, "and is starting to yield results. . . . Building on those successes will take time, continued investment, and steadfast commitment on the part of CPS and all our partners."

But after four years at CPS, the statistics still reveal cause for concern. And Brenda Truesdell, for one, isn't buying the governor's rosy picture.

Truesdell told the legislators that she'd previously worked as a caseworker in Indiana.

"I didn't think a system could be any worse than Indiana when I left Indiana," she told the legislators. "Arizona is worse. Arizona is much worse."

Next week: An examination of the Napolitano administration's efforts on behalf of children in three areas: juvenile corrections, environmental protections for kids, and early intervention for the developmentally disabled.

Week three: The Legacy.

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