PHOENIX - Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on Thursday called the state Legislature into special session to debate and enact her proposal for overhauling the state's troubled child welfare agency.
The Republican governor proposed the overhaul after revelations late last year that more than 6,500 child abuse and neglect reports were closed without investigation. The discovery of the "not investigated" cases was the most serious in a long string of problems at the agency.
Arizona has seen skyrocketing numbers of child abuse and neglect reports in the last several years that came as state lawmakers also cut the agency's funding to deal with a budget crisis. One of the agency's first tasks is to work to eliminate a backlog of nearly 15,000 cases.
"As we all know, our child welfare system has been beleaguered for decades, failing the vulnerable children it's supposed to be protecting," Brewer said. "Now, I am asking the Arizona Legislature to act expeditiously to get this legislation to my desk so we can begin this overdue and necessary transformation. It is truly a matter of life and death."
Her proposal will formally separate the old Child Protective Services department from its parent agency, set it up as an independent cabinet-level agency, create new oversight and transparency policies, and beef up its resources.
Brewer set up a temporary department in January under a new leader -- the former head of the state's juvenile corrections department. She asked for and received about $59 million from the Legislature to help remake the agency in the upcoming budget.
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.
The proposal includes a call for an additional $60 million, bringing total agency funding to $827 million in the budget year that begins July 1. That's up from $626 million just two years ago.
It also adds extra child welfare and criminal investigators and creates bonuses for new caseworkers who stay past 18 and 36 months in an effort to cut down on 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.
The new agency is designed to be more transparent as it investigates abuse and neglect reports, promotes child safety and family reunification or other permanent placement.
Other provisions include the authority to investigate people in a household who aren't relatives and may be abusing children, authority to contract out services and retain outside lawyers to advise the director. The proposed legislation also creates an inspections bureau to ensure that internal policies are followed and lays out specific guidelines for responding to complaints called into the agency's child abuse hotline to avoid a repeat of the problem.
A key child welfare advocate says Brewer's proposal lays a "very solid foundation."
"It will be up to all of us to keep us on that track going forward," said Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of Children's Action Alliance. "But it's an excellent start to reset and repair with new leadership, new policy and new funding."
Still, Naimark said there's not enough emphasis on prevention, which would reduce the number of children entering the system, but she hopes that will change over time.
"We're still in crisis mode, so the focus is reducing the number of inactive cases, which has to be a priority because kids are sitting there in danger," she said.
It's unclear if the governor has the complete support of the Republican-controlled Legislature for the spending portion of her plan. House Speaker Andy Tobin said members are eager to create the agency, but the state's revenue picture remains poor and the economy is still struggling.