AZ County Attorney Wants Police to do CPS’s Job

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is trying to make child welfare a law-enforcement issue. Read about it here (Arizona Republic, 10/27/11).Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is trying to make child welfare a law-enforcement issue.  Read about it here (Arizona Republic, 10/27/11). As I’ve reported before, Arizona Child Protective Services has come under fire from a number of quarters for its failure to protect children.  And that criticism is richly deserved.  For example, in the past 11 months, four children who were known by CPS to be at risk in their custodial environment, have died there. 
Understandably, the press and much of the public are up in arms about CPS’s failures, and it’s far from the first time.  Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic listed at least four times in the past 19 years in which governors have vowed to completely overhaul the child welfare system, only to see the same tragic events recur. So once again, Governor Jan Brewer has promised bold action in the form of a task force that will hold hearings and make recommendations for change. Enter Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.  Predictably for a prosecuting attorney, Montgomery’s proposed fix is to hand more of the job of child protection to the police. As things stand now, either CPS or the police or both may investigate an allegation of child abuse or neglect.  So if CPS finds a situation in which child abuse appears to be criminal, they’re supposed to call the police.  And if police investigate a case that looks like it needs to be handled by CPS, they’re supposed to bring in a caseworker.  One problem is that often neither agency alerts the other, even when they should. That’s a legitimate problem, but it’s hard to see how Montgomery’s proposal would solve it.  So I talked to the public information officer for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to find out. Jerry Cobb told me that Montgomery’s idea is just that – an idea – and nothing more at this point.  Cobb said that Montgomery was “talking generically” when he made the proposal.  That much is clear, because the questions raised by the proposal far outnumber the answers. According to Cobb, Montgomery’s proposal would establish an investigative unit separate from CPS.  Once a report of possible abuse or neglect is made, that unit’s job would be to decide whether the situation warranted (a) no action, (b) social services support for the family or (c) separation of the children from the parents and criminal charges. Of course, CPS does that now.  So Montgomery’s idea is to simply transfer that gatekeeping function to another agency.  What would that agency be?  Montgomery’s not sure, but it might be the already existing Office of Special Investigations that’s part of the Department of Economic Security of which CPS is also a part.  Who makes up the Office of Investigations?  Law enforcement.  What makes them more qualified to assess child abuse or neglect than CPS caseworkers?  Aye, there’s the rub.  As poorly trained as many CPS caseworkers are, the police are no better at evaluating the potential for future – or even present – abuse than they are.  In fact, they’re less so.  What police are trained to do is decide whether probable cause exists to arrest someone for criminal behavior.  And that has little to do with whether a family needs help raising a child or needs to be separated from that child.  The two disciplines are worlds apart.  Worse, CPS, at least in theory, has a mission to keep families together if possible.  The police have no such mission.  If they see evidence of a crime, their job is to make an arrest and let the county or district attorney take it from there. And that raises another issue; just about all child abuse or neglect is also a crime.  Does a parent spank a child?  It’s battery or some form of misdemeanor child abuse.  Indeed, I can think of no form of abuse or neglect that isn’t also a crime, if only a misdemeanor.  So, whether he admits it or not, Bill Montgomery is proposing that the police take over the investigation and handling of virtually all reports of child abuse or neglect in the State of Arizona.  It’s a job that they’re not equipped to handle.  They don’t have the manpower and they don’t have the training. Worse, as Cobb described it to me, if the police conclude that a crime has been committed by a parent against a child, under Montgomery’s plan, the child would automatically be removed from the home.  That would mean the removal of children whose parents, for example, spanked them.  Needless to say, there aren’t enough foster parents in Arizona to deal with that massive an influx of children. Montgomery, like Laurie Roberts, is responding to the terrible tragedy of children who are known by CPS to be at risk dying at the hands of their parents.  That of course is compelling evidence that something needs to be done.  But, again like Roberts, Montgomery concludes that, because parents killed those kids or allowed them to die, Arizona needs to take children from parents at the least sign of abuse or neglect.  That assumes the kids will be better off in foster care, but abundant research shows they won’t be. Indeed, research I reported on recently paints a pretty grim picture of foster care as compared to parent care.  Children in foster care overwhelmingly tend to do worse in school and have more emotional/psychological difficulties even than those who are abused or neglected by their parents but remain in their care.  Likewise, they’re far more likely to be physically or sexually abused.  And when they turn 18 and “age out” of the system, they’re often left with no support system to rely on.  That means they’re still at greater risk of physical abuse and far less likely to be employed than children who weren’t in foster care. To the extent it’s a plan at all, Montgomery’s is flawed in all sorts of ways.  But the main problems are that it assumes (a) that for some unstated reason, the police can do CPS’s job better than CPS caseworkers can and (b) that foster care is superior to parental care.  The former is doubtful and the latter is flat wrong. Arizona needs to improve its system of child welfare.  Bill Montgomery’s “plan” will only make it worse.

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