Arizona lawmakers taking on child welfare overhaul

PHOENIX - The Arizona Legislature convened a special session Tuesday to debate Gov. Jan Brewer's proposal for overhauling the state's child welfare agency.

The Legislature met for what is expected to be three days of work on Brewer's plan.

The Republican governor proposed the overhaul after revelations late last year that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect reports were closed without investigation.

A panel of lawmakers, new agency chief Charles Flanagan, Brewer's chief of staff and others worked for months to write legislation remaking the former Child Protective Services department.

Brewer wants $60 million in new funding to separate the agency from its old parent department, deal with a backlog of nearly 15,000 cases and beef up other services. The new agency will also have new oversight and transparency provisions.

Lawmakers will mainly tackle procedural issues Tuesday, Senate President Andy Biggs said. Committee hearings are set for Wednesday, and floor debates and final passage of the plan are expected Thursday.

Democrats are expected to call for more spending on preventative services. Majority Republicans appear resigned to give the extra funding Brewer wants, but Biggs said he wants additional accountability measures to ensure the new agency actually tackles the backlog and other problems that led to the current crisis.

"I think a lot of work has gone into it. It's been thoughtful, but I also think it has been rushed. But I think we are trying to do something complex in such a short period of time." said Biggs.

Biggs wants to keep track of the money and make sure it's spent the right way.

"People don't want to say, you are just throwing money at the problem," said Biggs.

"We aren't looking to put a band-aid on this," said Leah Landrum-Taylor, (D) Arizona State Senator for District 16.

Landrum-Taylor has spent the last five months dissecting CPS. She was on the CARE team, an independent group investigating the Department of Public Safety. She also was one of many lawmakers who helped the governor draft legislation to create the new agency.

"We are truly looking at a full restructuring and to make sure children are the main priority," said Landrum-Taylor.

The split doesn't fall along party lines. Senate Democrat and mental health counselor Ed Ableser is also concerned the new bill doesn't do enough.

"As it stands today, I don't think it does anything to protect children," said Ableser.

Brewer set up a temporary department in January under a new leader -- the former head of the state's juvenile corrections department. The Legislature gave her about $59 million to help remake the agency in the upcoming budget.

The additional $60 million the governor wants brings total agency funding to $827 million in the budget year that begins July 1. That's up from $626 million two years ago. The plan adds extra child welfare and criminal investigators and creates bonuses for new caseworkers who stay past 18 and 36 months in an effort to reduce turnover.

Five senior child welfare employees were fired last month for their role in executing a plan to deal with an overwhelmed staff by closing cases after a paper review. A senior administrator in the Department of Economic Security, formerly CPS' parent agency, also was fired.

Flanagan cited a lack of policies and procedures by the workers that led to illegal actions. The five fired CPS workers said they were following orders and were made scapegoats for an agency struggling to deal with soaring workloads and abandoned by the governor and Legislature.
 

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