PHOENIX - Less than a year after revelations that thousands of child abuse and neglect reports in Arizona had gone uninvestigated the state has overhauled its child welfare agency, funding it with tens of millions more than in the past.
“It’s a step in the right direction. This is the foundation that we needed and we will build upon that,” said Sen. Leah Landrum-Taylor, (D) Dist. 16.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on Thursday signed into law two bills that created and funded a new child welfare agency, now known as the Department of Child Safety.
“It was a tough task, but it needed to be done,” said Brewer. "It is a momentous day for Arizona, as we take the boldest and most meaningful step in state history to reform and replace our problem-plagued child welfare system.”
Brewer called the new agency a critical step in ensuring the safety of children in Arizona.
"With this historic legislation, we begin to reverse a longstanding crisis and implement long-lasting change. Through necessary resources, safeguards, checks and balances and oversight -- as well as a clearly-defined core mission of child safety -- there will be no room for excuses, secrets or faceless decision makers. There will be no more mixed messages and competing priorities. Finally, Arizona will have a child safety system with the capability and culture to protect our children," she said.
The governor's office said the new agency will be funded at a total of $845 million once all accounting issues are tallied for the budget year starting July 1, more than $200 million more than in recent years.
Brewer proposed the overhaul after revelations late last year that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect reports were closed without investigation by the old Child Protective Services department. The governor set up a temporary department in January under Charles Flanagan, the former head of the state's juvenile corrections department. He will also head the new agency.
The House vote came after the Senate nearly unanimously approved the new agency and an extra $60 million in funding. However, the Senate stripped out an extra $3 million it had approved the day before. That money had been intended for prevention services including child care subsidies, stipends for grandparents caring for their grandchildren and out-of-home care. Democrats had argued in favor of preventative programs, saying they save money by keeping children from being neglected.
The main bill setting up the agency passed unanimously in both chambers, and just one senator voted against the bill funding the agency in the Senate. Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said she voted against the bill because her amendment increasing accountability failed.
That amendment would have held back part of the new agency's funding until it met hiring goals and benchmarks for easing a backlog of cases that is nearing 15,000.
New agency Director Charles Flanagan has pledged to work to eliminate that backlog by the time Brewer leaves office in January.
A group of lawmakers, new agency chief Charles Flanagan, Brewer's chief of staff and others worked for months to write legislation overhauling the agency. Brewer defended the legislation -- and the deal that led to its quick passage during a three-day special session -- by saying it was comprehensive and the best agreement that could be reached.
"Is it perfect? Probably not. Is it a new beginning? You betcha," Brewer said. "It is a new beginning. It is a new way of Arizona doing business regarding protecting our children. And it's probably going to end up being the model for the country when we get done with it. Say what you will, it is an agreed upon agreement, and it's a new beginning."
Final votes came on the third day of the session and after many speeches by legislators who called the new agency a historic advancement.
Brewer, herself, made a highly unusual visit to senators after their vote and then to the House during its vote, briefing addressing the chamber where she began her political career three decades ago and then sitting next to House speaker Andy Tobin as the House passed the measures.
But even as House members voted 60-0 to adopt the overhaul plan, they cautioned each other that their work wasn't done.
"It will take diligence," Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said. "It will take perseverance. It will take vigilance. It will take a lot of effort."
One couple who hopes to see change, say they fostered children through CPS. “We've seen the holes here and there, for sure,” said Julie.
She and her husband Scott, who didn’t want to say their last name. said they were disappointed to hear of the thousands of ignored cases. “Having had children in our home, that could’ve been one of our kids.”
She and her husband adopted three of the children
they fostered through CPS.
They wish they could've helped more.
She said, "It's scary to think 'what if your case had been ignored and we didn't have you (the kids)?'"
"What if? What if? What if? What if?"