PHOENIX - Arizona's child welfare safety net has many more holes than were made evident by recent revelations of ignored child abuse and neglect reports, speakers said Tuesday night at a forum on reforming Child Protective Services.
Court systems are unfriendly time-sinks for foster parents, CPS workers and biological parents trying to regain custody, some said. Others recounted how struggling families leave their kids home alone or dump them into the system just to get child care after major cuts virtually eliminated subsidies for the working poor.
They said prevention programs that could head off family emergencies are lacking, and CPS workers are so underpaid and undertrained that the agency can't keep workers long enough for them to become the seasoned professionals that children in crisis need on their side.
But the current focus on CPS can act as a catalyst for reforms that are woefully needed, said Dana Naimark, president of the Children's Action Alliance, which organized the event with other advocacy groups to give suggestions to lawmakers on the Legislature's CPS oversight committee.
"We know we can make changes," Naimark said at the onset of the two-hour forum. "We have an opportunity to shape the future."
CPS revealed two weeks ago that more than 6,000 child abuse and neglect reports had been closed without investigation, a number than has since risen to more than 6,500. Gov. Jan Brewer ordered a state police investigation and on Monday appointed an independent team to review the investigations and identify areas needing improvement.
Earlier Tuesday, the agency confirmed that five staffers have been placed on paid administrative leave as allegations of wrongdoing are investigated. The closed reports by law required investigations but were somehow declared not worthy of action.
Brewer has defended the hand-picked head of the Department of Economic Security, Clarence Carter, who oversees CPS, saying she believed there was a breakdown in the chain of command between Carter and the agency. Still, the governor promised accountability.
Juvenile Corrections director Charles Flanagan is leading the team Brewer put together Monday. He said that his first task is to ensure that an initial review of the botched cases already completed by CPS was not done by people involved in initially labeling the cases as "not investigated."
"These are vulnerable children, and the governor was absolutely clear -- we will get eyes on them and make sure they are safe," Flanagan said in brief remarks to several hundred people at the forum.
Along with overseeing the investigation of the closed cases, Flanagan's team is tasked with reviewing the agency's policies and practices and recommending changes.
Gordon Hall, a retired CPS worker who now works for a private social services agency, said low pay for workers is one major problem. A college graduate working for CPS as a social worker starts at about $35,000 a year, is handling nearly twice the federal guidelines for caseloads and can switch to a job at a hospital and earn 40 percent more.
He also criticized the trio of investigations now looking at CPS, including the Legislature's committee.
"We've got three committees investigating CPS," he said. "We need one."
The lack of prevention programs has contributed to a dramatic rise in neglect reports, said Dennae Pierre, executive director of the advocacy group Arizona Foster Care Initiatives. She said a dollar spent on prevention can save $10 in costs down the road.
"All the dollars in the world won't help," Pierre said. "We're just stuck in a crisis state."