Analysis shows soaring Arizona abuse caseloads

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- A new analysis presented Friday to members of the Legislature's Child Protective Services oversight committee shows Arizona's child welfare system experienced a greater caseload increase than all but one state in the 10 years ending in 2012, while most states saw decreases.

University of Chicago researcher and former federal child welfare commissioner Bryan Samuels' review of state and federal data also found the response time in Arizona for child abuse and neglect complaints soared from 63 hours to nearly 250 hours between 2009 and 2012.

Samuels said the data he reviewed at the request of state officials working to overhaul the broken system showed Arizona's child welfare system became overwhelmed as caseloads soared. That led to a large increase in the amount of time children were in the system before being reunified with their families or placed in permanent homes.

"The big finding here is that as the system has grown in size, it has struggled to move children who would otherwise have moved out of the system when it was less busy out of the system," Samuels said. "So you have fewer children exiting and when they exit, they exit having been in the system longer than they would have been before.

"It has the downside effect of children being exposed to a traumatic experience for longer periods of time and experiencing the kind of instability that you wouldn't want for any child, particularly one that has been abused and neglected," Samuels said.

The findings show Arizona's system is beyond capacity, and state officials will have to either add that capacity or come up with new strategies to lower caseloads.

The findings were no surprise to the oversight committee, created in 2012 to focus on fixing the system. That charge became more urgent when more than 6,500 uninvestigated abuse and neglect reports were revealed in November.

Gov. Jan Brewer ordered CPS pulled from its parent agency in January and created a Cabinet-level post to oversee it. A panel she created that includes lawmakers, the head of the new agency, Brewer's chief of staff and others are working on legislation to make that executive order permanent and have been gathering information.

What did surprise even Charles Flanagan, chosen by Brewer to lead the agency, is that the data Samuels presented even existed.

"I didn't know that we had access to this before this day," Flanagan said. "We do have a problem ... with the quality of the data and the timeliness of the data and the reports we produce, and this really gives you a very clear overview of outcomes."

The separate working group that has been meeting to rewrite the CPS laws expects to produce final legislation by May 1.

"As you can tell we're digging in to all the different parts of the process in CPS and child protection that have been brought up as problematic," said Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, who sits on the oversight committee and the CPS reform group writing the new law. "It's going to take time, the draft is really rough."

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, another member of both committees, said she's looking at relatively minor changes so the system isn't shocked. She said the current agency hasn't been following existing state law and relies on poorly written and followed rules.

"So my personal cautionary approach going forward is less is more in terms of what this new agency or entity looks like in terms of changing statutes," Brophy McGee said.

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