How many times have I complained that state child protective agencies operate in all but complete secrecy? In many states, a child has to die before the press or the people are entitled to get a look at what CPS did or didn’t do in the case.
The excuse for that secrecy is that, if a child has been abused or neglected, the trauma would only be made worse with publicity. That of course is putting out a match with a fire hose. If we’re truly concerned about the child’s welfare, why not just forbid the press from reporting the child’s name, its parents’ identities and any other information that could identify the child. That would provide information about the case and CPS’s actions without jeopardizing the child.
All that is obvious enough. After all, the press manages to keep secret the identities of women who make rape allegations, so why couldn’t it keep a secret in CPS cases?
The answer of course is that the press could easily do that, but isn’t permitted to. And the conclusion that follows is that the secrecy that cloaks CPS agencies isn’t for the children, but for state employees. Child protective agencies are among the worst at doing the jobs they’re tasked with. There are many reasons for that, but the veil of secrecy behind which they act is one of the most important. The simple fact is that people who know they’re being watched tend to behave better than those who know they’re not.
Now we learn that the State of Arizona has been trying to even further reduce the accountability of its child welfare agency even more than has long been the case.
Because state child-welfare services are funded in part by federal taxpayer dollars, each state is required to form Citizen Review Panels—made up of community volunteers—that exercise some oversight of DCS. The panels are "federally mandated mechanisms for citizen participation in child protection," according to the Child Abuse and Neglect Technical Assistance and Strategic Dissemination Center, or CANTASD, website.
So what did Department of Child Safety Director Greg McKay do?
Since Citizen Review Panels were one of the few ways the public could influence the state's child-welfare system, Ford's group was keenly interested in McKay's announcement that the panels would be replaced with an in-house system.
Yes, the panels are required by federal law with the plain intent of ensuring public oversight of CPS’s activities. But, as night follows day, Arizona moved to remove the public’s only access to the agency by making the panels “in-house,” i.e. staffed by CPS insiders. Citizen Lori Ford and many others balked.
Would the new panels maintain oversight of DCS actions and cases? How would the public inform the panels of their concerns? And if transparency in public outreach was required, why did the agency appear to be closed off to citizen accountability?
Those are all good questions, but the answers are, shall we say, murky.
To accomplish that, DCS made the Community Advisory Committee, formed by the legislature in 2015, one of those Citizen Review Panels. Weirdly enough, the CAC at first allowed no public comment. That’s a mighty strange stance for an entity one of whose functions is to,
Collaborate among state, local, community, tribal, public and private stakeholders in child welfare programs and services that are administered by the department.
As one of Ford’s group remarked,
They were public meetings but the public had to sit there silently,” she said.
Eventually, Ford’s group got permission to actually speak to the Committee. But as usual, there was less there than met the eye.
Each person was allowed to speak for two minutes. While there is no regulation mandating time allotted for public comment, many cities provide three minutes for residents to address elected officials and public meetings can continue until the wee hours of the night until everyone has had their chance to speak.
The group was also told that once they had brought up an issue they should not raise it again to the committee.
So, apparently, if a person complains, in the two minutes allotted, that, for example, DCS ignored a report that its caseworkers were running roughshod over parents’ constitutional rights, the committee would listen politely and that would be the end of it. No follow-up questions would be tolerated. The public can raise an issue, but, if the committee or DCS decides to ignore it, no one has the right to inquire, much less complain. Amazing, but true.
And that, more or less is where we stand. Once again, the agency that has never wanted public oversight is managing to avoid same, despite the clear intent of federal law.
Meanwhile, the attitude of DCS is captured nicely by Lori Ford:
“They say we’re intimidating and threatening, but we’re just a bunch of old people, really,” she said.
Yes, Ms. Ford, to DCS, that’s exactly what We the People are – intimidating and threatening. Your group threatens DCS’s preferred secrecy. They’re terrified that the people whose taxes pay their salaries might actually know what they’re up to.
And that, Ms. Ford, is a clarion call to keep up what you’re doing.