Already Bad, Tight Budget Makes Arizona Child Protective Services Situation Worse

December 16th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Arizona’s beleaguered Child Protective Services is now running 12% over budget; that’s a $35 million shortfall in a budget of $277 million.  The solution?  Cut services that help children.  Read about it here (Arizona Daily Star, 12/12/12).

Arizona CPS is a division of the Department of Economic Security.  For some years now it’s been under fire for a variety of issues that can all ultimately be laid at the door of the legislature.  CPS is chronically underfunded which means caseworkers are overworked and underpaid.  That results in their quitting in droves which was reported earlier this year.  Fewer caseworkers just makes life harder on those who remain.  Unsurprisingly, those still on the job have far more to do than they can handle.  Often, caseloads run 50% higher than industry standards.  That of course means that children at risk don’t get the attention they need, and neither do parents who may only need attention, training or access to services they don’t know about.

Too little money, too few caseworkers, too little contact with kids in dangerous homes all result in children injured and sometimes killed.  The Arizona Republic has been reporting on this for years.

Now add to the whole mess the fact that there are a record number of children in the state living in foster care.  My guess is that came about because it’s easier for a caseworker to take a child and put it in foster care than it is to keep it with its parents who then need to be constantly monitored.  Taking a child is viewed as being “pro-active” and helps the caseworker to close the file.  Hence, the shortage of money creates a bumper crop of foster kids.

Of course foster care costs money too – a lot more than parental care – but harried caseworkers likely don’t much care about that.  They probably view foster care as their best alternative in a situation that’s bad in many ways.

So, with Child Protective Services in turmoil, the decree has come down from on high that the agency must start to live within its means.  Of course by “its means,” Director of the Department of Economic Security Clarence Carter refers to the means with which the legislature has endowed it.  By now, everyone in the state knows that those means are insufficient to do the job the agency is trying to do.  Otherwise there wouldn’t be all those caseworkers quitting.  But no matter, the state’s answer is to reduce the budget still further, presumably by the amount of the $35 million shortfall.  The amount may be only $15 million because they expect an influx of $20 million from Washington, but whatever the number, cutting the amount available to hire caseworkers isn’t going to improve an already dangerous situation.  In fact, it’s already made it worse.

Basic services for families are being cut at Arizona’s child welfare agency as it tries to adjust to a multi-million dollar budget shortfall and documents obtained by the Arizona Republic ( show budget problems threaten to limit supervised visits between parents and their children.

One memo cited in the Republic’s report Wednesday says the shortfall is “affecting the service delivery on our cases, particularly visitation, parent-aide services and transportation costs.”

‘Solution’ to Child Protective Services Problem – Cut Services to Parents

I suppose that’s predictable.  When it comes time to tighten the belt, cut services to parents.  This is the same agency that prefers to bypass fathers when it comes to placing children whose mothers prove abusive or otherwise unfit.  Like so many other child welfare agencies nationwide, Arizona’s prefers to whisk kids straight into foster care rather than contact fathers to see if they’d provide a good home.  Of course it’d be cheaper to place the child with its father, but that fact doesn’t seem to improve matters.  Again, this is an agency that’s overspending its budget, but no one seems to be considering the possibility of including fathers as one way to save money.

No, according to CPS, it’s better to cut services to parents with whom it intends to reunite kids taken temporarily into care.  That of course increases the likelihood that the children will never return to their parents and remain in foster care until they’re 18.

Child-welfare experts say the changes could make it harder to reunite families and further increase the record number of children in foster care. Attorneys for children and parents say CPS in some cases is disobeying court orders requiring more frequent visits for their clients.

The state is delaying some services for months and requiring upper-management approval for what had recently been standard appointments with mentors known as parent aides.

Many Arizonans don’t like what they’re seeing.

Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez said she’s alarmed by the sudden budget adjustments.

“None of this makes sense to me in terms of doing what’s best for the kids. To me, this seems like grounds for some sort of legal action. We’re not fulfilling our responsibility as the guardians of these children,” she said.

There are sensible solutions, but don’t expect the state to try any of them.  The best thing to do with kids at risk in their parents’ homes is to try to figure out what those parents need to be better caregivers to their children and then provide it.  Often parents have a special needs child for whom services exist about which the parents are unaware.  It should be a simple matter for CPS to connect the parents with the service providers.  Some parents simply don’t know effective parenting techniques.  Those can be taught.  And of course fathers should be contacted in every case in which a mother loses her child, even temporarily.

Of course not all parents fall into those categories.  Some truly need to lose their children.  But the solution to child endangerment is rarely foster care that, often as not, has the potential to increase a child’s risk of harm.  Plus, foster care is expensive, a fact that ought to occur to Arizona CPS about now.

In family court, the mantra is “the best interests of the child.”  But when it comes to Child Protective Services, children’s welfare seems to take a backseat to a lot of competing interests like a too-tight budget, the foster care industry, federal dollars, a disdain for fathers and an unwillingness to try to help parents stay in their children’s lives.  To quote State Senator Lopez, “none of this makes sense to me…”

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