Arizona lawmakers taking on child welfare overhaul

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- The Arizona Legislature is set to convene a special session Tuesday to debate Gov. Jan Brewer's proposal for overhauling the state's child welfare agency.

The Legislature will meet beginning in the afternoon for what is expected to be three days of work on Brewer's plan.

The Republican governor proposed the overhaul after revelations late last year that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect reports were closed without investigation.

A panel of lawmakers, new agency chief Charles Flanagan, Brewer's chief of staff and others worked for months to write legislation remaking the former Child Protective Services department.

Brewer wants $60 million in new funding to separate the agency from its old parent department, deal with a backlog of nearly 15,000 cases and beef up other services. The new agency will also have new oversight and transparency provisions.

Lawmakers will mainly tackle procedural issues Tuesday, Senate President Andy Biggs said. Committee hearings are set for Wednesday, and floor debates and final passage of the plan are expected Thursday.

Democrats are expected to call for more spending on preventative services. Majority Republicans appear resigned to give the extra funding Brewer wants, but Biggs said he wants additional accountability measures to ensure the new agency actually tackles the backlog and other problems that led to the current crisis.

Brewer set up a temporary department in January under a new leader - the former head of the state's juvenile corrections department. The Legislature gave her about $59 million to help remake the agency in the upcoming budget.

The additional $60 million the governor wants brings total agency funding to $827 million in the budget year that begins July 1. That's up from $626 million two years ago. The plan adds extra child welfare and criminal investigators and creates bonuses for new caseworkers who stay past 18 and 36 months in an effort to reduce turnover.

Five senior child welfare employees were fired last month for their role in executing a plan to deal with an overwhelmed staff by closing cases after a paper review. A senior administrator in the Department of Economic Security, formerly CPS' parent agency, also was fired.

Flanagan cited a lack of policies and procedures by the workers that led to illegal actions. The five fired CPS workers said they were following orders and were made scapegoats for an agency struggling to deal with soaring workloads and abandoned by the governor and Legislature.

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