- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

PHOENIX (AP) - An independent team named by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to review the state’s troubled child welfare agency on Friday called for a top-to-bottom overhaul of the department to focus it purely on child safety.

The team released a 54-page review outlining steps needed to address yearslong problems at Child Protective Services. The most severe issue was revealed in November when more than 6,500 child abuse and neglect reports were found to have not been investigated.

Brewer abolished Child Protective Services earlier this month and created a new child welfare department that reports directly to her.

The Republican governor’s CARE team report recommends retraining social workers, working more with outside providers and law enforcement and overhauling the state’s child abuse hotline.

The report also recommends creating an agency inspections bureau to provide oversight and removing civil service protections from child welfare agency workers to allow exceptional performance to be rewarded.

“It’s a very insular, closed, friend of friend-type culture and that needs to change,” said Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, a Republican who is on the team. “It needs to be a system of employees who are supported in the job they are expected to do that’s clearly outlined for them that they will then be accountable for.”

The report revealed big lag times in the abuse hotline system, noting that 26 percent of callers hang up while on hold. It mapped 142 possible points in the current system where an abused or neglected child could fall through the cracks.

“It’s breathtaking,” Brophy McGee said. “It’s very scary.”

The report also repeated what’s already known about the agency - that caseworkers are overworked, turnover approaches 30 percent, and performance standards are unclear.

Dana Naimark, president of the advocacy group Children’s Action Alliance, said the report provides a “good, solid roadmap on the investigative side.”

“I thought it was really important that they pointed out the connection between the child abuse and neglect issue and the lack of child care and other prevention support, and we certainly are looking to our leaders to take action in these areas this session as well,” Naimark said.

Brewer created what she’s calling the CARE team in December after it was learned that a group inside the Child Protective Services agency had been closing reports received by its child abuse hotline without sending them to social workers in the field for investigation. The idea was to cull out reports not meriting action to lower the caseload of overwhelmed field workers, but a review found many should’ve been acted upon, and all by law required a response.

Five senior CPS workers remain on administrative leave as investigations into who authorized the closings continue.

The CARE team has been handling the previously uninvestigated reports and assigned all but three of 6,554 cases to social workers. Those three were referred to authorities on Indian reservations outside state jurisdiction.

Social workers have removed 91 children from their homes since the neglected reports dating to 2009 were discovered. A review also found that before the closed cases were discovered, nearly 1,200 of them had subsequent reports that led to the removal of at least 316 children from their homes.

Brewer named the director of the state’s juvenile corrections department to lead the effort and appointed key lawmakers and others to the team.

Earlier this month, she pulled CPS from its parent agency and created a new cabinet-level department by executive order, saying she has “abolished CPS as we know it.”

Brewer renamed the agency the Division of Child Safety and Family Services and appointed CARE team leader Charles Flanagan to head it. She’s asking the Legislature to formally create the new agency.

The biggest takeaway from the review was that the state needs to partner with local and regional social services providers and local law enforcement to more efficiently prevent and respond to child abuse, Flanagan said.

“I think that message is what comes out of this loud and clear,” Flanagan said. “The CARE team work has allowed us to find Arizona best practices.”

Brewer also asked the Legislature for money to immediately begin beefing up agency staffing. On Thursday, lawmakers approved a special $6.8 million appropriation that will allow the agency to begin hiring nearly 200 new workers. That action is needed because caseloads have soared in recent years as abuse reports skyrocketed and high worker turnover left workers handling more than twice the recommended caseload.

Brewer also wants nearly $10 million more right away for emergency child placement in group homes and other settings and family support services such as parenting skill training and foster-care recruitment. The Legislature has delayed providing those funds, with Senate President Andy Biggs saying earlier this week that the request might wait until the next budget year.

The extra funding is in addition to a $74 million request for the budget year that starts July 1. That request will pay for the agency reorganization, increased staff and other items such as a down-payment on a new computer system.


Follow Bob Christie on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APChristie .

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