Keep up the clamor to fix Arizona's broken system

from: Arizona Republic

Sept. 9, 2007 12:00 AM

If you want to see real change in child welfare, you are going to have to yell longer, not louder.

Child-protective systems nationwide were molded by sporadic bursts of negative attention on the state level and a perverse funding mechanism on the federal level.

Both encourage quick-fix approaches.

"Child welfare does not make it onto the list of critical issues unless something terrible happens," says Steve Christian, child-welfare expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Arizona is no different.

When Gov. Janet Napolitano pushed for major reforms in Arizona's Child Protective Services, the state was reeling from news of children who had died horrible deaths despite prior contact with CPS. That was 2003.

On Sept. 25, lawmakers will hold legislative hearings on the deaths of three Tucson children. Their parents are accused of murdering them. CPS is accused of not protecting them.

The hearings may result in positive changes, but the danger is that a frenzied rush to "do something" could undermine the meager progress that's been made.

The 2003 reforms pumped a relatively large amount of money into CPS, but it wasn't enough to expect perfection.

Between fiscal year 2004 and fiscal year 2007, state funding for the Division of Children Youth and Families, which includes Child Protective Services, increased by 93.1 percent, to $215.7 million from $111.7 million, according to Liz Barker Alvarez, spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Security. Federal funds bring the total budget to $495 million in fiscal year 2007.

In Arizona, Uncle Sam provides about 56 percent of the child-welfare budget. Nationwide, the number averages about 49 percent, according to a 2006 report by Urban Institute.

Comparing how states fund child welfare is difficult because child-welfare agencies are organized differently and may serve different populations. Even in Arizona, the DES includes CPS funding in the larger Division of Children, Youth and Families budget, which funds other activities.

Nevertheless, the Urban Institute tried to take differences into account and came up with a list of what states spent in 2004. When compared with 10 other states that have similar populations, Arizona ranked eighth, right between Kentucky and Alabama. That was before Arizona nearly doubled state funding.

But Arizona has not become a believer in properly funding child welfare. CPS needs 220 new positions just to meet the state's own caseload standards. There's no money to do the hiring.

Arizona is not alone in its failure. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says no state is fully in compliance with the federal child-welfare requirements.

But Washington is in no position to criticize. Congress talks about the importance of services to prevent unnecessary family breakups. But the biggest chunk of federal child-welfare money is tied to foster care and adoption. This is an open-ended entitlement program that will serve any number of children who are removed from their homes.

Funding aimed at prevention and services to keep families together is about 5 percent of what the feds send to states, and this funding is capped.

The perverse incentive is to remove children rather than attempt to heal families.

If the upcoming hearings about the Tucson children lead to a call to remove more children from their homes, that would be a crisis-motivated response. And a mistake.

The emphasis on child safety that was the centerpiece of the 2003 reforms resulted in a spike in the number of children in out-of-home care from 7,535 in September 2003 to 9,906 in September 2005. Child-welfare advocates say it was an appropriate result of heightened attention. But the numbers have begun leveling off and stood at 9,773 in March. That's still too high.

Keeping children safe by helping their families overcome problems was also a goal of Arizona's 2003 reforms. CPS boasts a 67 percent increase since July 2003 in the number of children being safely served in their homes. But family services take money. A substance-abuse treatment program for CPS families is not funded to fully meet the need even though Barker Alvarez says 60 to 70 percent of the reports CPS investigates involve substance abuse by one or both parents.

A recently published study by Joseph Doyle, an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, backs up the importance of providing services to families. Doyle tracked 15,000 kids in Illinois' child-welfare system from 1990 to 2002. These were not severely abused children, but those whose cases could have gone either way. Doyle found that kids who remained with their families were less likely to become juvenile delinquents or teen mothers than those who had been placed in foster care.

As Arizona takes a look at the cases of three Tucson children who might be alive today if they had been removed from their homes, the temptation will be to punish a system that failed.

A better response is to acknowledge that while the state has made progress in recent years, it still fails to adequately fund the system.

That will only happen if Arizonans remain focused on the long-term goal of structuring an effective child-welfare system.

As Christian said, "Legislators care about what their constituents care about."

When the constituents look away, so do the legislators.

So keep yelling.

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