Of all the significant concerns facing the state this year, most likely none has actually had more scrutiny than securing the lives and welfare of our children. Despite all of the attention to take care of Arizona's Child Protective Services, it is a agency still in crisis.
Nick Oza/The Republic
CPS after-hours investigator Wendy Rosenberg talks to a 4-year-old outside his apartment. The boy's mother had been taken to a psychiatric hospital after threatening suicide.
A year 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.
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 triple or double 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. The number of child-maltreatment 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-year-old Jacob Gibson's death. He told and promised a top-to-bottom review rattled rank-and-file workers that he would break down the agency's "bunker mentality" to solve long-festering 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 juvenile-court 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.
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.".
"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 reviews, 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 child-abuse 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 task-force 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, social workers and medical professionals, 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. 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 Republic 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 abused. Children are still going to die. You're going to have employees who botch cases. You're never going to stop those things 100 percent.".
-- Task-force member Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, Jan. 3, 2012.
State elected administrators and officials 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 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.".
"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.
Front-line workers and child-welfare advocates 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.
Former and current 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 unmanageable and unreasonable.".
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.
"Kids are still sleeping in CPS offices. There still aren't enough foster homes," Scarpati said.
A lasting way forward.
"Our collective efforts to provide the safest possible environment for Arizona's children, recognizing the harsh reality that we can not 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 expected 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.".
A version of this column originally appeared in azcentral.com.