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Updated May 27, 2014 - 5:11 pm

Arizona lawmakers taking on child welfare overhaul

PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature briefly convened Tuesday for the first
day of a planned three-day special session to debate Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal
for overhauling the state’s child welfare agency. But little actual work was
accomplished as last-minute tweaks to the legislation delayed formal
introduction of two enabling bills.

House and Senate members were called to order and then broke into small groups
to be briefed on the proposal to create a new Department of Child Safety and
give it an extra $60 million to get up and running.

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 (CPS) department.

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

But the legislation itself — a complex overhaul that requires rewriting entire
agency-enabling legislation to separate the new agency from the Department of
Economic Security — was still getting final adjustments even as lawmakers met.

Looming over the day’s meetings was a proposal from top Republican leaders to
add more accountability. Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy
Tobin both want benchmarks set to ensure the agency is hiring the workers it
promises and making significant progress on a backlog nearing 15,000 cases.

But the governor rejected an initial proposal that members said would pull back
some of the extra funding if those benchmark were not met.

“Gov. Brewer has been clear to them that she won’t accept piecemeal funding or
benchmarks tied to funding,” her spokesman Andrew Wilder said.

Tobin said lawmakers are trying to get the accountability they want without
making the legislation unpalatable to Brewer, who must sign the bills.

“She wasn’t happy if half the money is going to be a risk over a benchmark in
two or three months,” Tobin said. “We’re trying to work our way around that.”

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who has worked on CPS issues since
2008 and served on the panel that came up with the overhaul plan, said its
accountability is robust. Provisions include specific requirements for the state
child abuse and neglect hotline; how criminal and non-criminal investigations
must be handled; a separate prevention-services bureau; and a new inspections
bureau to ensure the rules are being followed.

“I’ve heard the criticisms, and they are valid concerns,” Montgomery said.
“But I think once folks get an opportunity to look through the actual
legislation … I think they’ll see a number of different areas where
accountability is provided for.”

Democrats are expected to call for more spending on preventative services. But
Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, who also was on the panel that drafted the
proposal, said that’s probably not going to happen. Once the backlog of cases is
addressed, more money could be available for early intervention and prevention,
she said.

“We have limited resources, and clearly we have to handle the cases that are
in the system already,” McCune Davis said. “If I had my way, we’d be putting
more money on the front end, because I believe we need to alleviate pressure on
the system.”

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

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.

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