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Updated Aug 9, 2013 - 3:03 pm

Strains continue for Arizona child-welfare agency

PHOENIX — Arizona’s child-welfare system continues to be strained by
increases in reports of abuse and neglect and in placements of children in
foster care even as the state makes progress in areas such as reuniting children
with families.

That’s the assessment offered by state officials and child-welfare advocates in
the wake of the state’s release Thursday of its latest twice-yearly report on
Child Protective Services, The Arizona Republic reported.

The report said Arizona has a record 14,314 children in foster care in March,
up from 12,453 a year earlier.

Meanwhile, the number of hotline reports of abuse and neglect rose from just
under 20,500 to over 22,100 during the same period.

“The rate of growth doesn’t seem like it can be sustained, and yet it isn’t
slowing,” said Michael Wisehart, acting deputy assistant director for the
Department of Economic Security.

On the plus side, the number of children reunified with their families rose to
2,534, up from 1,848, and the number of licensed foster homes inched upward to
3,516 from 3,480.

Meanwhile, the annual rate of turnover among CPS workers has dropped to 28
percent this year from 33 percent last year, and Wisehart said further
improvement is expected as more workers stay longer when they’re joined by new
workers now in training.

Gov. Jan Brewer and state lawmakers have focused increased scrutiny on CPS and
provided approximately $60 million of additional funding for CPS to its parent
agency, DES.

The money, which is in the state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1,
includes money for 114 additional CPS workers, according to the legislative
budget office.

Some officials and advocates cited previous budget cuts that slashed child-care
subsidies and other programs for struggling families during the Great Recession
and its immediate aftermath.

“We’re just seeing more and more Arizona families in trouble. They’re losing
every benefit that they had at the state level,” said Marsha Porter, director
of the Phoenix Crisis Nursery and a former CPS administrator.

Advocates and officials said there’s only so much the agency can do about the
challenges faced by many families, but the officials cited steps being taken by
the agency.

Those include sending low-level reports to community agencies and implementing
a new sorting system to ease caseloads.

Along with plans to hire more workers, the additional funding will pay for
group-home and shelter beds, growth in child-care services for foster kids and
intensive family services aimed at keeping families together.

A legislator who co-chairs a CPS oversight committee said she is encouraged
that the agency is pursuing new initiatives to keep kids out of foster care.

“It looks like they’re headed in a positive direction,” said Rep. Kate Brophy
McGee, R-Phoenix. “But I think we need to remain anchored in the data, no
matter how discouraging it may be.”

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