CPS reforms are one giant step forward for kids


There’s a sign over the door at Childhelp’s Children’s Center in central Phoenix. “All who enter here will find love,” it says.

They also will find a team of child-crime detectives, Child Protective Services caseworkers, forensic interviewers, pediatricians, nurse practitioners, medical assistants, therapists and even a pair of therapy dogs named Paisley and Sugar.

“What you see here,” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery says, as we stand in the lobby, “is an illustration of best practices in implementing the multidisciplinary investigative protocol.”

Or, in English:

“This is what good looks like.”

This is what good looks like and soon a version of it will be seen across the state, if Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Legislature agree. Establishing a child advocacy center in every county – a one-stop shop set up for victims of child abuse -- is one of 50 or so recommendations of the Arizona Child Safety Task Force.

The recommendations are aimed at ensuring that children are better protected and the people who abuse them are prosecuted. So that kids like six-year-old Jacob Gibson don’t fall through the cracks and into their graves, despite four previous reports to CPS. So that kids like 23-month-old Janie Buelna can’t be so easily hidden away when CPS comes calling to check on their welfare.

Central to the plan is a proposal to create a new unit of investigators outside of CPS, people with either law enforcement experience or specialized training in how to recognize a crime scene. This Office of Child Welfare Investigations, set up within the Department of Economic Secuirty’s Division of Children, Youth and Families, would handle the initial investigation into any report of criminal abuse or neglect and toss the case to police if there’s evidence that a crime has been committed.

CPS could then concentrate on those cases in which a social services response is warranted – hopefully with a beefed up array of services aimed at keeping children safely in their own homes.

The plan calls for more training for CPS workers and more authority to be able to verify the well being of children reported to the agency when parents won’t allow access. It would set up a system of foster families trained to deal with crime victims, ensuring that children don’t wind up back in the hands of the people who abuse them, and establish a review to consider putting a child abuse prevention program in the schools. (Perhaps Childhelp’s new Speak Up Be Safe program, which was developed in conjunction with ASU and is being piloted in Florida schools?)

And it would fix a loophole in the law, the one CPS is using to deny my request for information on baby Josephine -- specifically how a four month old came to have 14 broken bones and a cigarette burn, all while living with a CPS- approved safety monitor.

All in all, this set of proposals represents one giant step forward for the children of this state, the ones who have nobody looking out for them. I particularly like the separate unit of trained investigators – a move that would not only force the police to get involved earlier and more often but may actually reduce the number of children in foster care as CPS no longer defaults to yanking kids out of their homes for fear of making a mistake that could lead to a child’s death.

It’ll cost money, of course. How much more, we don’t yet know but I’m guessing something north of $20 million.

Montgomery says he believes it’s a plan that conservatives in the Legislature – the ones ever on the lookout to shrink government -- can embrace.

“We approached this in a very deliberate manner, with the focus being on enhancing child safety and not on pursuing some theory of social welfare,” he said. “So it has a different look and feel about fitting within the fundamental scope and duties of government.”

There is no duty more fundamental than this one. If any of our leaders question that, they need only visit Childhelp’s Children’s Center. Walk through the doorway with the sign about love for all who enter, and inside you will find signs of a different sort. Dozens upon dozens of signs pinned to the “Worry Wall” over the last few months, left there by children who had the courage to write down their fears when so many don’t dare.

Signs that loudly and clearly call out for our help. Can we really turn away?

“Next time, he will kill me.”

“I had to live in a closet.”

“They will get rid of me, too.”

(Column published Jan. 4, 2012, The Arizona Republic)

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