As GOP leaders scrambled to wrap up the passage of a state budget earlier this week, a major legislative priority remained unresolved: The restructuring of the state's Child Protective Services.
And with lawmakers likely to conclude the legislative session once the budget and other bills go for a final vote, it's a "distinct possibility" that the Legislature might have to come back for a special session later this year to deal with the CPS issues, according to state Rep. Bruce Wheeler (D-Tucson).
Even more frustrating to child-welfare advocates: The budget, at least as it appeared on Monday morning, did not include funding for child-care subsidies and too little funding for family foster homes.
Last week, after the Senate approved its version of the budget, David Higuera of the Children's Action Alliance said the process was being rushed without an opportunity for public input.
"The Senate approved the budget bill that was barely put out there for public scrutiny," Higuera said "It ended up meaning that some terrible things were passed ... that leave children behind."
Eric Schindler, president and CEO of Child & Family Resources, shared similar concerns, citing other areas that haven't been accounted for, specifically preventative programs.
"I'm gravely concerned that zero dollars have been allocated for additional prevention and early intervention programs like home visitation and family preservation, and, in addition, not enough money has been added for the right staffing patterns and for foster care," he said. "Those are significant omissions—that's huge."
Schindler added that the new budget could have drastic consequences in the long run.
"If we move forward to the next fiscal year without additional money for childcare subsidies, prevention services, foster care services, the right staffing patterns, we're at significant risk for continuing to get more and more kids removed, more and more kids in out-of-home care," he said. "And my big issue is, can we invest in the right types of proven prevention strategies and childcare subsidies that will significantly reduce increases that we see in child-neglect cases?"
Those neglect cases played a big role in the more that 6,500 uninvestigated CPS cases that created a political firestorm late last year and had politicians on both sides of the political aisle promising big changes for CPS this session.
At a public forum in late January at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, a mix of Tucson citizens told a panel of six lawmakers about their concerns with CPS.
Emily Jenkins, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Council of Human Service Providers, said the problem went beyond the uninvestigated reports.
"We're continually concerned about the 15,000 children in out-of-home care," Jenkins said. "Arizona is a case-study for what happens when you stop funding early intervention."
Jenkins' statement summed up what is, for many, an ongoing problem with CPS: Although the agency sometimes removes children from abusive situations, it also leaves many to grow up away from home.
After the news of the uninvestigated cases broke, Gov. Jan Brewer commissioned an eight-person CARE team of state representatives and members of state child-welfare organizations to first address the uninvestigated cases, then look into the department's current policies and find areas of improvement. The team's first report came at the end of January.
In the report, the group first cited a "crushing capacity problem" as the cause for the missed cases, and advised that the department address its staff shortage—which itself was a result of high employee turnover. It also mentioned a lack of funding and shortcomings to the department's supervision.
Furthermore, the team suggested a variety of changes within the department, including an autonomous system of supervision, improvements to the department's phone call hotline and a more collaborative effort with law enforcement. The report was quick to point out that solving the problems piecemeal wouldn't suffice, and that everything started with the shortage of manpower.
"Solving any one problem will not produce lasting results, because the root cause is that demand exceeds capacity, which leads to policies not being followed," the report said.
The report had come only a few weeks after Brewer's 2014 State of the State speech, where she announced her plan to "abolish CPS as we know it," and create a new Division of Child Safety and Family Services. Brewer put Charles Flanagan, the current director of Arizona's Department of Juvenile Corrections, at the helm of the new department. Days later, Brewer's office released a spending plan that allocated $74 million of more than $9 billion in 2014 to CPS in order to hire 200 people.
Though many lawmakers conceded that the governor's team is making progress, nearly everyone agreed that the problems within CPS are far from fixed.
"I think that it needs to have a very serious focus; we need to increase the funding but with that funding, you need to have some very serious accountability measures," state Rep. Ethan Orr said just after the team released the report. "For example, one of them is the five-year retention rate of case workers. How does that compare to the national averages? ... I think what is happening is a start, but I certainly don't see this as anywhere near being finished."
As the director for the Southern Arizona office of the Children's Action Alliance, Higuera expressed the need for more preventative measures, leaving CPS to be a last resort for broken families.
"We are still continuing to talk to legislators about the need for prevention to keep families out of the CPS system," Higuera said. "But we feel like the report was well done and, for the charge that they had, the CARE Team, we think, did a great job."
Schindler, who has seen state resources for Child & Family Resources dramatically shrink since 2009, said he was impressed with the CARE Team's urgency in addressing the uninvestigated cases and issuing the report, but echoed Higuera's sentiment in regards to preventative services.
In fact, Schindler said weeks after the report's release, CPS's prevention services used to be widely used resources before funding cuts in 2009 made them nearly nonexistent. He cites three primary prevention services that were commonplace before the cuts:
• In-home services, which sees a CPS counselor intervene when a parent has been reported to CPS for abuse or neglect.
• Home visitation or family support, which puts a counselor with a family before their child is born in an effort to prevent any issues before they arise; often used for children born into families labeled "at risk" due to drug use or other factors.
• Child care subsidies, which allow low-income families access to daycare services.
"You don't necessarily have to remove every child who's been potentially abused and neglected," Schindler said. "In some of the cases that are less severe, you could bring some intensive family counseling and support and coaching to that family. Then you may be able to prevent removal and prevent having the kid go into foster care, which is very, very expensive and very traumatic."
Schindler added that although the services have better long-term effects than sending families through CPS, the results aren't immediate.
"If you have so many children already removed from home that they're sleeping at CPS workers' offices some nights, then the immediate needs unfortunately rise to the top," he said. "But the economic and social benefits of investing in prevention are the only way to make meaningful long-term positive impacts."
With efforts to overhaul CPS statewide still in progress, lawmakers and experts are taking a look back at what might have caused the downturn in the department's effectiveness. As many feel the budget cuts years ago are at the root of the problem, lawmakers understand the process of slashing funding.
As far as Orr's concerned, securing the CPS retention rate for employees is the priority.
"I think the most important thing for CPS is the five-year retention rate for line-item CPS staff—those people who are on the front lines," Orr said. "Those, I think, are the most important people in the system, and so we really need to be having an intelligent conversation about what are we doing to support them and how do we help them."
The talk of shifting the focus to preventative services also leaves room for people to ask whether the money spent fixing CPS would be better spent on creating more robust programs that keep families out of the department. But many say the time invested into the overhaul is worth it.
"I think it's a necessary thing that you want to do," Orr said. "These are the people that are in the most vulnerable situations, the people that they are designed to love and trust have harmed them, and I think we as a society do double the harm if we don't intervene."
Weeks after the forum, Jenkins said that CPS, in most cases, is too late when it comes to fixing a broken family. Though she said the efforts to restore the department were a start, but that more programs—like child care subsidies and food stamps—needed fixing, too. And those are the programs that aren't being funded in the proposed budget.
"CPS can't fix this problem by itself," she said. "I think it's a much broader issue than CPS. CPS just comes in too far down the road to take care of it. It's broader than them."