The state House of Representatives took the first step Thursday night toward sweeping reform of Child Protective Services.
Seeking to end a recent string of child deaths and abuse cases that brought CPS investigations into question, the House voted 31-23 to adopt HB2024.
The bill would change the fundamental mission of CPS in state law to protect children from harm instead of promoting family stability.
It would require every report of abuse or neglect be investigated by the agency and to immediately involve police in the most serious cases.
"I think we’ve come a long ways on this," said House Speaker Jake Flake, RSnowflake. "It’s not perfect, it’s not going to be perfect. It’s not the money that a lot of people want. It’s too much money for others. But we’ve got to start somewhere."
The House bill includes $2.1 million for CPS to hire 74 more caseworkers.
But Gov. Janet Napolitano has asked for $35.5 million, including $27 million to cover a predicted shortfall in the agency’s current $250 million budget.
CPS officials say they might have to lay off 153 caseworkers and other employees without the midyear addition.
"This is a very small step forward and a huge step backwards if we don’t fund the supplemental," said the House Democrat floor leader John Loredo of Phoenix. "It seems to me that’s a pretty bad thing because we’re putting children further at risk than we already are."
The bill now moves to the state Senate, where a similar bill would provide about $5 million in new funding.
But an informal coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans have made it clear the final version must include more to get their vote.
Senate leaders are scheduled to meet with Napolitano today as they look for a possible funding compromise.
The House plan, crafted behind closed doors by Republican negotiators, also would open some aspects of the child-welfare system to public scrutiny for the first time.
Parents could request juries in custody trials that the public could attend, while related CPS and court records could be reviewed.
But the bill also includes a variety of exceptions and admonitions intended to keep secret the identity and medical records of children and their families.
The House also voted 33-19 Thursday to approve HB2006, sponsored by Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Chandler, to make it easier to prosecute people who file false abuse reports.
Nichols said he has heard from CPS caseworkers that up to 50 percent of their investigations involve false reports from parents in divorce and child-custody cases.