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February 9th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The Arizona Legislature has begun considering a bill to change the way the state deals with cases of severe abuse or neglect of children.  Read about it here (Tucson Citizen, 2/8/12).

The bill, HB 2721, would create a new unit, apparently within child protective services.  It would consist mostly of members with backgrounds in law enforcement who would supplement case workers in severe cases of abuse or neglect.

The bill is in response to findings by the Child Safety Task Force empaneled last year by Governor Jan Brewer.  The task force came about due to numerous cases of severe abuse, some resulting in the death of the child, that had already come to the attention of Child Protective Services. 

It was the failure of CPS to prevent those injuries and deaths that stirred the press to call for reforms.  Law enforcement agencies, particularly the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office responded by writing the legislation that is now before a House committee.

But there are problems.  First, the bill, if enacted into law, would add a law enforcement presence to a situation that already has one.  Currently, local CPS caseworkers are empowered to involve the police if they think a child’s situation warrants it.  Just how adding another group of individuals to the mix would improve matters remains unexplained.

Second,

It’s unclear exactly what the investigators would do. Brewer’s budget says they would travel with CPS investigators and train CPS and police, but the bill says they also would be authorized to receive reports, respond, remove children and submit investigative reports.

In other words, they’d be doing what CPS does only without training in child protection, only in law enforcement.  Into the bargain, they apparently would have the power to remove children from families even when case workers reached a different conclusion.

Worse, as far as has been reported to date, the new “unit” would have no mandate to keep families together where possible, as CPS currently does.  Inevitably, that would mean that police-trained members of the unit would tend to err on the side of family break-up to prevent what they would see as the main problem – danger to the child.

And that of course is the main problem with the proposed bill.  It seeks to create a “unit” with the power to break up families but with no mandate to maintain family relationships and no training in how to decide when or when not to take children from their parents.  For example, will these individuals be informed of the large body of science showing that children tend to do worse in foster care than they do in parental care, even when those parents have been shown to be abusive or neglectful?

As one of the many articles on the shortcomings of CPS in the Arizona Republic explained, for years now, various governors have vowed to take bold action to increase the effectiveness of CPS and reduce the level of child injury in the state.  All have done something, but none has done anything that worked.  If this bill passes, Jan Brewer will take her place at the end of that growing line of governors.

The simple fact is that law enforcement personnel are less equipped even than CPS caseworkers to decide issues of child maltreatment.  By giving law enforcement greater power to decide child welfare issues with no corresponding understanding of or fealty to the family, the bill would make matters worse, not better.

Another thing.  Across the nation, more and more CPS agencies complain that people who are supposed to report child abuse and neglect fail to do so.  Many of those are “mandated reporters” like doctors, teachers, coaches and the like.  Those people fail to report child injury at the risk of their jobs, and yet many do not.  The question many people are asking is “why?”

I would suggest that the answer lies in part with CPS itself.  If people generally trusted CPS to do the right thing, my guess is they’d be more likely to make those reports.  But the fact is that people fear the unbridled power CPS has to tear families apart.  Understandably, they hesitate to place a family in CPS’s crosshairs, rather hoping the family will work things out on its own or that things aren’t bad enough to call in the power of the state.

If I’m right about that, adding yet another police agency to the situation isn’t likely to encourage people to report their concerns about child abuse.  My guess is it’ll do the opposite.

There’s an answer to all of this – an answer that no one in the state seems to have considered.  The answer is not greater state power but less.  The answer is not more children taken from their parents but fewer.  The answer is to take money currently spent on foster care and direct it toward services for parents who may need nothing more than some expert advice or training in how to properly parent their children. 

That won’t do away with foster care and it won’t protect all children from injury, but it will keep families together and likely improve children’s outcomes overall.  Into the bargain, it’ll help CPS regain the respect in the eyes of parents and the public generally that it long ago squandered.

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