Suffer the Children

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.

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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske