State lawmakers took the first steps Wednesday to shoring up the state's overburdened Child Protective Services system.
Without dissent, both the House and Senate Appropriations committees approved giving the agency an additional $4.4 million immediately on final approval of the bill. The funding will enable the agency to hire an additional 50 caseworkers.
That would be on top of 1,075 caseworkers the agency already has.
But the measure, which still requires final Senate and House approval, is just the down payment: Gov. Jan Brewer, in her budget request for the coming fiscal year, wants an additional $14.3 million to hire another 150 caseworkers. And that does not include $4.8 million to expand the number of foster families and $29.7 million for increased emergency and residential placement of children.
On top of that, Brewer is seeking $9.6 million just to deal with the increased caseload.
"This is an important step,'' said Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, who chairs the Senate panel.
"These poor kids have a rough row to hoe to start with,'' he said. "I do believe that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable.''
Clarence Carter, director of the state Department of Economic Security, the parent agency of CPS, assured lawmakers that he was not there simply just asking for more funds. He said CPS has revamped its policies and procedures to do the most with the cash available.
The push to hire more caseworkers brought a query from Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, D-Tucson, of whether there are enough qualified people available to do what can be a demanding job.
"It seems like such a specialized field,'' she said.
"This is a job that requires that requires a very delicate understanding of human interaction,'' he said. But he told Cajero Bedford there are sufficient "competent, capable, caring people.''
But he acknowledged that there has been a high turnover in the agency. And for some, Carter said, the job may not be what they expect.
To resolve that, CPS has created a "virtual job tryout'' to put an applicant "through the paces'' of what the job entails so they know exactly what the job involves.
According to the governor's office, reports of child abuse and neglect rose from 2,685 in July of 2009 to 3,550 just this past November.
Carter said, though, that isn't necessarily due to more incidents of abuse. Instead, he said, there is "an increase in public diligence,'' with people more sensitive to incidents of suspected abuse.
And the number of youngsters in CPS care out of their own homes rose from 10,258 in mid-2010 to nearly 14,400 in October.
Carter cautioned lawmakers that simply providing more funds does not mean the agency is done seeking help from the Legislature.
"Having the strongest possible child welfare system is a journey,'' he said. "It is not a destination.''