New agency to get Cabinet-level status; reaction is mixed

Arizona Republic – 01/14/2014 – By Mary Jo Pitzl

Gov. Jan Brewer punctuated her State of the State address Monday by announcing that she had abolished the problem-plagued Child Protective Services, rebranded it and would push for it to become a stand-alone office reporting directly to her.

The move got a mixed reaction from lawmakers. Although lawmakers and Capitol observers acknowledged something had to be done about an agency that has been swamped by complaints of child abuse and neglect — and that most recently shelved more than 6,500 such reports without any investigation — they said the move must be approached cautiously.

Brewer acknowledged the move alone won’t solve the problems at CPS, which is housed within the Department of Economic Security. But, she added, it’s a needed first step. She called on lawmakers to “statutorily establish a separate agency that focuses exclusively on the safety and well-being of children and helping families in distress without jeopardizing child safety.”

“It is evident that our childwelfare system is broken, impeded by years of structural and operational failures,” Brewer told lawmakers. “It breaks my heart and makes me angry!”

Her executive order makes the new Division of Child Safety and Family Services part of her Cabinet, effective immediately.

She named Charles Flanagan to lead the new division. Flanagan is on leave from his post as director of the Department of Juvenile Corrections while leading Brewer’s handpicked Child Advocate Response Examination Team, which is poring over 6,554 reports of abuse and neglect that were discovered 2 1⁄2 months ago.

Brewer’s order also moves the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, which discovered the uninvestigated reports, to the new Cabinet agency and makes it responsible for overseeing the CPS hotline. That office no longer reports to DES Director Clarence Carter, although it will take a state law to formally change the arrangement.

Carter remains head of the DES, a mega-agency that includes food-stamp administration, child-support enforcement and unemployment benefits.

Brewer wants lawmakers to build on her executive order and make the newly named Division of Child Safety and Family Services a stand-alone agency. It takes a state law to do that, a move many have discussed during the most recent CPS crisis. In addition to handling reports of child abuse and neglect, the division is responsible for foster care, adoption services and a medical and dental program.

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, RPhoenix, has been working on a bill to detach CPS from the DES. The governor’s endorsement of such a plan gives it a boost, she said.

However welcome the attention on CPS, many at the Capitol said the governor needs to provide more details before they can gauge whether her announcement will bring meaningful change to child welfare.

“I don’t think anyone thinks pulling it out is a panacea,” said Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, who chairs a legislative oversight committee on CPS. If all the Legislature does is unplug it from its parent agency and plug it into another office, nothing will change, she said.

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, echoed that sentiment. Biggs said the state first needs an outside party to do an objective analysis of CPS and help develop solutions to the agency’s problems.

That’s similar to what the Children’s Action Alliance has been calling for since the uninvestigated abuse and neglect reports were found in November.

Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of the alliance, said Brewer’s Monday move steps up the pace of revamping the state’s child-welfare system.

But more details are needed, Naimark added.

Some details may come Friday, when the governor is expected to reveal her budget for fiscal 2015. The CHILDS database, which child-welfare workers rely on to track cases, is aging and clunky, something Flanagan said has slowed work on the neglected reports.

Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, a CPS oversight committee member, said a key question is the cost to replace the database, if that is in the budget.

“The database they have is antiquated and useless,” she said.

McCune Davis said the creation of a stand-alone agency brings greater transparency and makes it harder for its operations to get lost among the other duties of a big agency, something Carter claimed was the case with the neglected files.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, RGilbert and a member of a task force that recommended CPS changes two years ago, said he wants any changes to include an examination of the child-welfare mission, one that he believes must focus on criminal cases of abuse and neglect.

Republic reporter Alia Beard Rau contributed to this article.

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