Brewer steps up for kids across Arizona

Arizona Republic – 01/14/2014 – By Laurie Roberts

Cue the hallelujah chorus and break out the hosannas. Gov. Jan Brewer hopped up there on a wrecking ball on Monday and did what so badly needed to be done for vulnerable children in this state.

Instead of reaching for the well-worn box of Band-Aids, she abolished the woeful Child Protective Services and replaced it with a new Cabinet- level division, one that now reports directly to her.

She also called on the Arizona Legislature to turn it into a new stand-alone agency that will deal with child-welfare issues.

“Enough with uninvestigated reports of abuse and neglect,” she said in her fifth and final State of the State address. “Enough with the lack of transparency. And ENOUGH with the EXCUSES.” 

Can I get an amen?

CPS has been a disaster for the two decades I’ve been following it. Band-Aid after Band-Aid has been applied, yet nothing ever seems to change.

Good money has been poured in (before being siphoned right back out), with no improvement.

Now comes a governor faced with 6,554 reports of abuse and neglect that the agency simply decided not to investigate. A governor who angrily stood before reporters two months ago and vowed “never again.”

A governor who is now following through on that vow.

The new Division of Child Safety and Family Services will remain — for now — within the massive Department of Economic Security. But its new director, Charles Flanagan, will report directly to Brewer.

It’ll be up to the Legislature to turn it into a stand-alone agency — something that was recommended, by the way, a decade ago when then-Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley commissioned a study of CPS following a string of child deaths.

Then, the idea was DOA at the Legislature.

And now? Well, now, it’s an election year, and people are fed up and watching as they never have before.

Of course, simply slapping a new name on an old division won’t cure what ails CPS.

What’s needed is a new culture that will promote openness and accountability, one where no longer are the ashes of children swept under the rug down at bunker central.

What’s needed is realistic funding for an agency in which front-line workers are overrun, resources to prevent abuse are scarce and the computer system harkens to the days of the Commodore 64.

What’s needed is the right people to run the place, as a stand-alone, streamlined agency where the mission is clear: to protect children.

Flanagan, the juvenile corrections director who is heading up Brewer’s Child Advocate Response Examination Team, will run the new Division of Child Safety and Family Services. That’s a solid choice, given the way this guy has dug into the problems at CPS — both to handle those 6,554 uninvestigated cases and to take a deeper look at how to fix what ails CPS. His suggestions are due in two weeks.

Flanagan, like everybody else, has been appalled at what went on at CPS — that senior-level managers would simply ignore cases despite a state law that says every one must be investigated.

“I think a situation like this where a policy decision was made — that was not in statute or in policy — at a lower level of the organization to do something that is clearly in conflict with law and policy is unbelievable and unacceptable,” he said Friday during a meeting with The Arizona Republic’s editorial board.

Flanagan said what happened at CPS couldn’t have happened at the Department of Juvenile Corrections, where there are independent eyes and checks and balances that allow the director to know what’s going on at every level.

Look for him to install such a system within the new Child Safety and Family Services, along with a request for more staff, better computers and a sharpened mission.

“We, as a society, need to determine what’s the primary focus of this agency,” he said. “It should be the protection of vulnerable children as the first priority in everything we do.”

Can I get another amen?

Brewer took a step on Monday unlike any that any other governor before her has been willing to do.

One focused on protecting children, not a bad bureaucracy.

Of course, now comes the tough part: persuading the Legislature to create this new agency and to fund it at a level where committed caseworkers can not only hear the cries of vulnerable children but do something about them.

If Brewer succeeds, this will be her legacy: champion to children who have none.

Not a bad way to spend your final days in office.

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