A Senate panel voted Tuesday for an immediate cash infusion for the state's troubled child welfare agency.
SB 1224 provides more than $5.7 million in new funds to the new Division of Child Safety and Family Services, the replacement for what until now has been Child Protective Services. The legislation also reallocates $1.1 million from elsewhere in the state budget.
Senate President Andy Biggs acknowledged that this is far less than Gov. Jan Brewer said earlier this month is necessary to have the agency running properly. But he said this should take care of the most pressing needs, with the governor's other requests dealt with in the budget for next fiscal year.
Biggs said the new funding will allow the agency to immediately hire 126 new caseworkers. That's on top of the 1,195 already authorized.
The cash also will pay for support staff and supervisors.
Tuesday's unanimous vote of the Senate Appropriations Committee came despite concerns by Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Peoria. Murphy, who has had his own run-ins with CPS over adopted and foster children, said he has seen no evidence that simply creating a new agency will remedy the long history of problems of the agency being opaque in its operations and not responsive to concerns from lawmakers and the public.
“I'm not sure I'm comfortable giving one more dime to CPS until they have that kind of accountability,” he said.
Charles Flanagan, named by Gov. Jan Brewer to head the new agency, said that will change. He said just the fact that this will be an agency reporting directly to the governor will mean “a greater level of scrutiny and fewer levels of bureaucracy.”
But Murphy, who has had his own run-ins with CPS, was not convinced more caseworkers is the answer. He said there are entirely too many cases where caseworkers overreact and decide the easiest thing to do after a complaint of abuse is to remove a child from a home.
Murphy knows something about that: CPS last year temporarily removed four of his adopted daughters from his home last year. That followed a complaint to police by his adopted son, subsequently recanted, which alleged abuse during a church retreat.
Two foster children in his home were also removed and not returned.
Murphy said there are many cases where most people would agree that children never should have been taken in the first place.
“That makes me question, do we really need to go out and hire a whole bunch of new people if that's the kind of thing that's going on and its widespread, or do we need to get priorities in line?” he asked.
Flanagan conceded that there are probably situations where caseworkers have taken children in situations where it might have been preferable to keep the family together and offer some services.
“But the problem is, when you're overworked you make the easiest possible decision for you right then,” he told lawmakers.
Flanagan cautioned, however, it's not that simple.
“If you don't take a child from a home, and then there are repetitive field investigations, and all of a sudden there's a dead baby, and all of a sudden everybody's scratching their head and pointing their finger at CPS,” he said.
The legislation now goes to the full Senate