STILL IN CRI­SIS

Of all the se­ri­ous is­sues fac­ing the state this year, prob­a­bly none has had more scru­tiny than pro­tect­ing the lives and wel­fare of our chil­dren. De­spite all of the at­ten­tion to fix Ari­zona’s Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices, it is an agency

The Arizona Republic - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARY K. REIN­HART THE REPUB­LIC | AZ­CEN­TRAL.COM

Ayear ago, Ari­zona’s bro­ken child-wel­fare sys­tem and the chil­dren it’s sup­posed to pro­tect were the fo­cus of in­tense de­bate, with politi­cians and ex­perts search­ing for so­lu­tions to in­tractable prob­lems.

Sev­eral chil­dren had been killed un­der the watch of the state’s Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices, a flood of fos­ter chil­dren were swamp­ing case­work­ers and the Mari­copa County at­tor­ney was ac­cus­ing the agency of let­ting chil­dren fall through the cracks to their deaths.

Spurred by the hor­rific beat­ing deaths of Ja­cob Gib­son, Janie Buelna and An­nie Carim­bo­cas, and the pub­lic out­rage and me­dia at­ten­tion that fol­lowed, Gov. Jan Brewer con­vened a task force to ex­am­ine whether the state was do­ing enough to keep its chil­dren safe.

But one year later lit­tle has changed. The statis­tics that first alarmed pol­icy mak­ers and ad­vo­cates con­tinue to trend in the wrong di­rec­tion, de­spite high-level re­views, a re­vamped in­ves­tiga­tive process, re­as­sign­ment of key staff and the ad­di­tion of a “SWAT” team to tackle a back­log of 10,000 CPS cases.

A record num­ber of chil­dren are in fos­ter care. Case­worker turnover re­mains high, with thou­sands of abuse re­ports wait­ing to be in­ves­ti­gated and caseloads that are dou­ble or triple of­fi­cial state stan­dards. The con­di­tions blamed for stress­ing al­ready trou­bled fam­i­lies haven’t changed and, in some cases, have de­te­ri­o­rated, as state bud­get cuts length­ened wait­ing lists for sub­si­dized child care, domestic-vi­o­lence shel­ters, sub­stance-abuse pro­grams and health care.

In re­cent weeks, the cri­sis within CPS wors­ened amid fran­tic ef­forts to deal with a pro­jected $35 mil­lion bud­get short­fall that led the agency to cut ser­vices to fam­i­lies. State of­fi­cials re­versed them­selves, say­ing the cut­backs were caused by a “mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” but not be­fore su­per­vised vis­its be­tween par­ents and fos­ter chil­dren were de­layed sig­nif­i­cantly and non-profit ser­vice providers laid off dozens of work­ers.

The chil­dren whose bru­tal deaths cap­tured pub­lic at­ten­tion last year were re­placed with new names in 2012: Za’Naya Flores, Vanessa Martinez, Pa­trick Smith. Mean­while, the num­ber of child­mal­treat­ment deaths shows no im­prove­ment over 2011, ac­cord­ing to state records.

When Brewer con­vened the Ari­zona Child Safety Task Force in Novem­ber 2011, she said her goal was to “en­sure the safest pos­si­ble en­vi­ron­ment for this vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion.”

The 19-mem­ber panel heard three days of tes­ti­mony from po­lice, judges, doc­tors, aca­demics, shel­ter ad­min­is­tra­tors and fos­ter par­ents as they looked for ways to turn around a sys­tem that had gone trag­i­cally off track. The task force is­sued 70 rec­om­men­da­tions on Dec. 30, chief among them cre­ation of a spe­cially trained in­ves­tiga­tive

unit to han­dle the most se­ri­ous child-abuse cases.

Clarence Carter, who over­sees CPS as di­rec­tor of the state De­part­ment of Eco­nomic Se­cu­rity, had been on the job just six months when me­dia scru­tiny in­ten­si­fied in late sum­mer 2011 fol­low­ing 6-yearold Ja­cob Gib­son’s death. He promised a top-to-bot­tom re­view and told rat­tled rank-and-file work­ers that he would break down the agency’s “bunker men­tal­ity” to solve longfes­ter­ing prob­lems.

A pri­vate con­sult­ing group, hired by Carter’s pre­de­ces­sor, re­viewed the child-abuse hot­line, the CPS in­ves­ti­ga­tions process and case man­age­ment — key com­po­nents of the sys­tem and the fo­cus of scru­tiny.

The Ari­zona Repub­lic launched a year­long ex­am­i­na­tion of child wel­fare in Ari­zona, which re­vealed that deep state bud­get cuts had evis­cer­ated pro­grams for strug­gling fam­i­lies and buried CPS in­ves­ti­ga­tors un­der the col­lat­eral dam­age of child abuse and ne­glect. Sto­ries re­ported back­logs in an over­run ju­ve­nilecourt sys­tem and months-long wait­ing lists for the most ba­sic ser­vices to help heal trau­ma­tized chil­dren. The se­ries also re­vealed the bound­less love and pa­tience of fos­ter fam­i­lies, the gen­eros­ity of the com­mu­nity and re­silience of chil­dren whom the sys­tem had failed again and again.

De­spite ef­forts by state of­fi­cials to fix the prob­lems, CPS re­mains a sys­tem in cri­sis. The big­gest is­sues re­main largely un­re­solved, leav­ing CPS bur­dened by a re­lent­less crush of chil­dren and fund­ing con­straints.

But Carter says im­prove­ments are coming and caseloads, the rate of chil­dren coming into fos­ter care and other key num­bers will be­gin to turn around, based on changes al­ready un­der way and new fund­ing he ex­pects to get next year.

“While there con­tinue to be trou­bling in­di­ca­tors, the sys­tem is un­der­go­ing such a pro­found re­vi­sion that ul­ti­mately those things will set­tle down,” Carter said in an in­ter­view with The Repub­lic. “What I would hope is that the agency would get the ben­e­fit of the doubt.”

Speeches, prom­ises

“There can be no higher pri­or­ity than the safety of chil­dren un­der state su­per­vi­sion.” — Gov. Jan Brewer, Nov. 1, 2011.

A pair of grue­some child-abuse deaths in the sum­mer of 2011 trig­gered me­dia at­ten­tion and pub­lic scru­tiny of CPS.

Ame Deal, a 10-year-old girl who suf­fo­cated in a foot­locker in her home, ap­par­ently had never come to the at­ten­tion of CPS. But Ja­cob Gib­son and his fam­ily were the sub­ject of a fifth state child-wel­fare in­ves­ti­ga­tion at the time some­one slammed his head through a wall. His par­ents are await­ing trial in his death.

In late Au­gust 2011, the gov­er­nor called Carter to her of­fice and asked him to ex­plain what had gone wrong in Ja­cob’s case and what he was do­ing about it. How could a lit­tle boy have met such a bru­tal end with two open CPS cases and at least three prior re­ports?

Carter laid out a plan to ad­dress grow­ing prob­lems in his agency, com­plete with charts and graphs that showed caseloads were well above state stan­dards, case­worker turnover was grow­ing and open in­ves­ti­ga­tions — cases that should have been com­pleted months and even years ago — were sky­rock­et­ing. He sug­gested fill­ing va­can­cies, mov­ing ahead with in­ter­nal re-

views, re­vamp­ing the child-abuse hot­line and im­prov­ing ef­forts to “com­mu­ni­cate Ari­zona’s suc­cesses.”

As Carter made his case in the me­dia, Mari­copa County At­tor­ney Bill Mont­gomery was pub­licly call­ing for a new po­lice-trained in­ves­tiga­tive unit, sep­a­rate from CPS, that would take over crim­i­nal child­abuse cases.

“CPS has proven it­self in­ca­pable year af­ter year in deal­ing with chil­dren who are vic­tim­ized,” Mont­gomery told The Repub­lic in Oc­to­ber 2011. “They don’t re­move chil­dren that they should and those chil­dren wind up dead. We’re not go­ing to do this any­more.”

Days af­ter Mont­gomery’s com­ments, Brewer named the task­force mem­bers, cast­ing the county at­tor­ney and Carter as some­what un­easy co-chairs.

Over the next year, the Leg­is­la­ture would turn five of the task force’s 70 rec­om­men­da­tions into law, in­clud­ing cre­at­ing the in­ves­tiga­tive unit Mont­gomery wanted and mak­ing a stronger link be­tween domestic vi­o­lence and child abuse. The DES and the courts al­ready were work­ing on a hand­ful of other rec­om­men­da­tions, such as re­forms to the child-abuse hot­line and ad­di­tional staff train­ing. But most of the task-force rec­om­men­da­tions were broad and as­pi­ra­tional or called for a re­view of cur­rent prac­tice, and they haven’t been im­ple­mented.

The goal of beef­ing up so-called mul­tidis­ci­plinary child-abuse teams that in­clude CPS, po­lice, med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als and so­cial work­ers, which had the broad­est agree­ment, went nowhere, largely be­cause it would cost more money.

In Novem­ber 2011, Brewer said the safety of chil­dren in state care was a top pri­or­ity. But she never men­tioned CPS in her Jan­uary State of the State ad­dress, in which she out­lined the state’s agenda for the coming year. Brewer did in­clude $3.7 mil­lion in new fund­ing for CPS to hire 28 in­ves­ti­ga­tors and man­agers for the Mont­gomery-in­spired unit, add four new ad­min­is­tra­tors and pro­mote 175 of the most sea­soned case­work­ers.

Law­mak­ers in­tro­duced about 20 CPS-re­lated bills, but the chief leg­isla­tive fo­cus was cre­at­ing the Of­fice of Child Wel­fare In­ves­ti­ga­tions. Phoenix homi­cide De­tec­tive Gre­gory McKay, on loan from the city for one year, started work in Oc­to­ber. The staff, which is to re­ceive a trimmed-down ver­sion of CPS case­worker train­ing, is charged with iden­ti­fy­ing crim­i­nal child mal­treat­ment and aid­ing in pros­e­cu­tion so chil­dren can be pro­tected or re­moved from their homes ear­lier.

The law re­quires the unit to be in place by Jan. 1. McKay and DES of­fi­cials are hir­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors with spe­cial­ized law-en­force­ment train­ing, de­vel­op­ing ad­di­tional train­ing and de­cid­ing how it will op­er­ate. He said the unit’s ini­tial fo­cus may be on “cases in the wind,” where chil­dren are stuck in fos­ter care and po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions into their abuse or ne­glect have stalled.

“It’s im­por­tant that we fill our shop with the right peo­ple. And it’s im­por­tant that our mis­sion is very clearly de­fined,” McKay told The

Repub­lic. “To me, cre­at­ing just an­other group of peo­ple who can’t stay above water ... is not where we want to be.”

Leg­is­la­tors unan­i­mously ap­proved a bill spon­sored by Rep. Terri Proud, R-Tuc­son, who sat on the child-safety task force, to cre­ate a CPS over­sight com­mit­tee. The panel was to report its rec­om­men­da­tions by Nov.15, but leg­isla­tive lead­ers hadn’t named its mem­bers.

When asked about the over­looked over­sight panel, Brewer’s of­fice last month ques­tioned the need for the com­mit­tee in light of the gov­er­nor’s task force, in­ter­nal CPS changes and new staff. Ear­lier this month, af­ter a Re

pub­lic story about the panel not be­ing formed, House Speaker Andy Tobin named five mem­bers. Two more are to be named by in­com­ing Se­nate Pres­i­dent Andy Biggs, and Carter is charged with choos­ing a CPS worker and fos­ter par­ent. No date has been set for its first meet­ing.

Child-wel­fare ad­vo­cates say that, de­spite hav­ing good in­ten­tions, hear­ing a wide ar­ray of tes­ti­mony and is­su­ing sweep­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, the gov­er­nor’s task force was largely a fail­ure.

“De­spite the task force’s rec­om­men­da­tions, very lit­tle if any­thing has hap­pened ex­cept for this whole cri­sis to get worse,” said Tim Schmaltz, a former CPS ad­min­is­tra­tor who runs Pro­tect­ing Ari­zona’s Fam­ily Coali­tion, an ad­vo­cacy group. “It’s more out of con­trol than when this all started.” In an Oc­to­ber in­ter­view with The

Repub­lic about this year’s child deaths, Mont­gomery said it ap­pears that lit­tle has changed since the task force met.

“My as­sess­ment of the need for re­form is no dif­fer­ent to­day than it was last year,” he said. “We’re still see­ing the same tragic cir­cum­stances.”

Re­form is ‘time con­sum­ing’

“Chil­dren are still go­ing to be — Task-force mem­ber Rep. Ed­die Farnsworth, R-Gil­bert, Jan. 3, 2012.

State elected of­fi­cials and ad­min­is­tra­tors have made some progress in the past year to­ward shap­ing a more ef­fi­cient sys­tem they be­lieve will re­duce case back­logs and ease the bur­den on in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

A stream­lined in­ves­ti­ga­tions process is cred­ited with re­duc­ing pa­per­work and cut­ting caseloads for new work­ers, giv­ing them more time to spend with fam­i­lies that need their help. While the agency’s first pri­or­ity is to en­sure that chil­dren are safe, case­work­ers also aim to sta­bi­lize fam­i­lies — most racked by drugs, men­tal ill­ness, domestic vi­o­lence or poverty — and put them back to­gether.

Re­vised child-abuse hot­line man­age­ment and pro­ce­dures, un­der a new ad­min­is­tra­tor, have led to shorter wait times to report cases of child abuse, fewer dropped calls and faster han­dling of ini­tial abuse and ne­glect re­ports from po­lice, med­i­cal per­son­nel and other pro­fes­sion­als.

Stepped-up re­cruit­ment has boosted the num­ber of new staff in the past sev­eral months. Heavy caseloads, case back­logs, piles of pa­per­work, low mo­rale and stag­nant pay had left CPS with dozens of va­can­cies it could not fill.

“I think that we are mov­ing in the di­rec­tion of turn­ing this tanker and hav­ing a very high func­tion­ing child-wel­fare sys­tem,” Carter said. “I think that there is tons to cel­e­brate that has hap­pened in the past year.”

Carter has been crit­i­cized dur­ing the past year for not re­spond­ing quickly enough as crit­i­cal CPS statis­tics wors­ened. But he has held fast to the be­lief that sys­temwide prob­lems had to be ad­dressed first to en­sure that any new money was wisely tar­geted.

“Im­pa­tience is dan­ger­ous,” he said. “We have to be ur­gent, but in our ur­gency we can’t gloss over struc­tural chal­lenges that have to be fixed.”

Now, Carter is ask­ing for an ad­di­tional $50 mil­lion for CPS in the coming fis­cal year to pay for 200

‘‘ It’s im­por­tant that we fill our shop with the right peo­ple. And it’s im­por­tant that our mis­sion is very clearly de­fined. To me, cre­at­ing just an­other group of peo­ple who can’t stay above water ... is not where we want to be.”

PHOENIX HOMI­CIDE DE­TEC­TIVE GRE­GORY MCKAY

Who is help­ing to set up the Of­fice of Child Wel­fare In­ves­ti­ga­tions

new case­work­ers and pay for the pro­jected growth in the num­ber of kids need­ing fos­ter care and adop­tion.

Real, last­ing, sys­temic change takes time, said Paul Vin­cent, di­rec­tor of the Alabama-based Child Wel­fare Pol­icy and Prac­tice Group and a con­sul­tant on state re­forms across the coun­try. The key is to dig deep, he said, and work in­cre­men­tally to change how work­ers and the sys­tem sup­port fam­i­lies so more chil­dren can re­main safely in their homes.

“To right a sys­tem that’s strug­gling is time-con­sum­ing,” Vin­cent said. “We know of no quick way to turn a sys­tem around. It takes a lot of plan­ning.”

‘Un­man­age­able’

“Sev­eral re­cent tragedies nat­u­rally have raised a col­lec­tive out­rage. We share that out­rage. But the ba­sic frame­work of the Ari­zona child-wel­fare sys­tem is solid.” — Ari­zona De­part­ment of Eco­nomic Se­cu­rity Di­rec­tor Clarence Carter, Sept. 3, 2011.

Child-wel­fare ad­vo­cates and front-line work­ers are im­pa­tient with the pace of re­form. They say Ari­zona’s chil­dren con­tinue to be in dan­ger be­cause overworked case­work­ers will in­evitably make mis­takes, and the state is buck­ing a na­tional trend that has seen the num­ber of U.S. fos­ter-care chil­dren drop for six con­sec­u­tive years.

Cur­rent and former Ari­zona CPS work­ers say heavy caseloads have com­pro­mised their abil­ity to keep chil­dren safe. State data show that, for more than a year, work­ers have been un­able to in­ves­ti­gate thou­sands of abuse and ne­glect re­ports or make monthly vis­its to fos­ter chil­dren as re­quired by law.

“Peo­ple are just to the point where they can’t do it any­more,” said a former CPS su­per­vi­sor, who left the agency this year and de­clined to be iden­ti­fied. “The ex­pec­ta­tions that are put upon them are un­rea­son­able and un­man­age­able.”

To­day, there are more than 14,200 chil­dren in fos­ter care, a 22 per­cent in­crease in the past year. Ev­ery day, CPS logs more than 100 new re­ports and re­moves an av­er­age of 27 kids from their homes.

Pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, com­bined with fewer ser­vices to of­fer fam­i­lies on the edge, has led case­work­ers to place more kids in fos­ter care.

Un­man­age­able caseloads mean chil­dren stay in fos­ter care longer be­fore they’re re­united with their par­ents, adopted or per­ma­nently placed with rel­a­tives. In June, hot­line work­ers reached a new record, field­ing more than 800 calls in a sin­gle day.

“Once that pres­sure to deal with prob­lems be­gins to build, par­tic­u­larly around a child death, the re­port­ing just ex­plodes,” Vin­cent said. “There’s a cycli­cal thing that hap­pens and that con­tin­ues to build the caseload. That kind of cau­tious, de­fen­sive prac­tice has un­in­tended con­se­quences.”

There has been no re­lief in the num­ber of chil­dren stream­ing through the doors of the 30-year-old East Val­ley Child Cri­sis Cen­ter in Mesa. The cen­ter con­tin­ues to re­ceive fran­tic phone calls from case man­agers and su­per­vi­sors, from Tuc­son to Prescott, des­per­ate for open beds. It con­tin­ues to care for ba­bies and small chil­dren, some of whom have been there since June.

“It doesn’t seem to me that we’ve seen any great pos­i­tive out­comes from ev­ery­thing that was promised,” said Chris Scarpati, founder and CEO of the cri­sis cen­ter.

“Kids are still sleep­ing in CPS of­fices. Lit­tle ones are still coming into the shel­ter. There still aren’t enough fos­ter homes,” Scarpati said. “More im­por­tantly ... we haven’t seen any new ser­vices start­ing to help fam­i­lies or keep fam­i­lies to­gether. That really is the key.”

A last­ing way for­ward

“Our col­lec­tive ef­forts to pro­vide the safest pos­si­ble en­vi­ron­ment for Ari­zona’s chil­dren, rec­og­niz­ing the harsh re­al­ity that we can­not pre­vent ev­ery in­stance of abuse or ne­glect, calls for com­mit­ted vig­i­lance and a will­ing­ness to re­turn as of­ten as pos­si­ble to eval­u­ate how well we are pro­vid­ing for the safety of chil­dren.” — Task-force co-chairs Mont­gomery and Carter, Dec. 30, 2011.

Child wel­fare and CPS will be the fo­cus of re­newed at­ten­tion from state politi­cians in the up­com­ing leg­isla­tive ses­sion, with more pro­pos­als for fix­ing un­re­solved prob­lems.

Po­ten­tial bills in­clude cre­ation of an on­line op­tion for quicker re­port­ing of child abuse, and trans­fer­ring con­trol of be­hav­ioral-health fund­ing for fos­ter chil­dren from the De­part­ment of Health Ser­vices to the DES.

Brewer will seek fund­ing for ad­di­tional case­work­ers and is ex­pect- ed to sug­gest CPS re­forms in her State of the State ad­dress Jan. 14.

“It’s go­ing be a push for the gov­er­nor this ses­sion,” said her spokesman, Matthew Ben­son. “Her bud­get is go­ing to ad­dress the re­source needs that she knows the agency has.”

Still, the DES bud­get plan only keeps pace with pro­jected growth over the next two years.

Child-wel­fare ex­perts say the agency also needs a com­pre­hen­sive ef­fort to sup­port trou­bled fam­i­lies and re­duce the num­ber of kids coming into care.

That means help­ing par­ents and care­givers dig deep to ad­dress the prob­lems that brought them to CPS in the first place.

And that re­quires trust­ing re­la­tion­ships be­tween CPS and fam­i­lies, and quick ac­cess to the right ser­vices, which takes time, ex­per­tise and sup­port from the broader child-wel­fare sys­tem — from ser­vice providers to the courts to ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers.

Ex­perts also say no amount of leg­is­la­tion or pol­icy changes will turn Ari­zona’s sys­tem around with­out ad­dress­ing caseloads, train­ing and worker re­ten­tion.

“Our ex­pe­ri­ence has been that if your work­force isn’t com­pe­tent or if they can’t prac­tice in an ef­fec­tive man­ner with chil­dren and fam­i­lies (be­cause of caseloads), it’s go­ing to be hard to get the out­comes you want,” said Vin­cent, the na­tional child-wel­fare con­sul­tant.

Karin Kline held var­i­ous jobs at CPS be­fore leav­ing last year for Ari­zona State Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Ap­plied Be­hav­ioral Health Pol­icy, where she de­vel­ops CPS train­ing pro­grams.

She’s been frus­trated by the ebb and flow of at­ten­tion to child wel­fare, with a tsunami of ac­tiv­ity fol­low­ing a child’s death soon aban­doned for years un­til an­other tragic case hits the news.

“I’ve done this for 27 years. I’ve seen this hap­pen time and time again,” Kline said. “They move on to the next thing be­cause ev­ery­body for­gets it ever hap­pened.”

But Kline said re­forms still need time to show re­sults.

The child-safety task force didn’t report un­til De­cem­ber 2011, and new fund­ing didn’t come un­til July. The child-wel­fare in­ves­ti­ga­tions unit hasn’t yet be­gun its work. And if ap­proved next year, Carter’s re­quest for 200 new case­work­ers could ease the work­load and re­duce turnover.

“I’m hope­ful for the first time in a long time,” Kline said. “My con­cern is that it doesn’t go away. We need to be able to sus­tain it.”

NICK OZA/THE REPUB­LIC

Two stu­dents get ag­gres­sive with each other af­ter be­ing sep­a­rated from other stu­dents for se­vere be­hav­ioral is­sues at the Dev­ereux Ari­zona res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ter in Phoenix.

NICK OZA/THE REPUB­LIC

CPS in­ves­ti­ga­tor Wendy Rosen­berg talks with a boy, age 4, whose mother threat­ened sui­cide.

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