A special legislative session to revise Arizona’s system for protecting abused and neglected children was wrapped up. Jim Small, an editor with the Arizona Capitol Times, gives us an update.
Ted Simons: A special legislative session to overhaul Arizona's child safety and welfare system wrapped up today with the creation of a new agency. Here with the details is Jim Small of The "Arizona Capitol Times." Jim, good to see you. Let's get into it. What happened today?
Jim Small: Basically, today, the legislature gave final approval to this reform package and funding package for the new Department of Child Safety. The Senate had done some work yesterday, a little bit of floor action yesterday but today was the final vote in the Senate and then the house debated the bill and also voted on it today and this afternoon about two hours after the session ended and the lawmakers called it quits, the governor signed the bill so everything is now in place for the new agency to basically replace the old child protective services.
Ted Simons: And the new agency will be called...
Jim Small: The Department of Child Safety.
Ted Simons: D-C-S
Jim Small: D-C-S
Ted Simons: And who will be in charge?
Jim Small: Charles Flanagan who was the former director of the Juvenile Corrections Department. He had been tapped actually by Governor Brewer back when she first announced in January that she was going to spin off the CPS agency into a new division at the time, a new division within the Department of Economic Security and she called for this new agency to be created. She selected him to lead that new division and he comes from kind of a corrections background. He was a warden and moved into the administration at the Department of Corrections before moving to juvenile corrections, but I think he's got a background, his approach to things, you know, I think he really won over a lot of sceptics throughout this process, that he's committed to doing what needs to be done and not simply treating things as though they are punishment.
Ted Simons: Not too much enforcement, in other words.
Jim Small: Enforcement is definitely a part of it. That's one of the things that the legislature had enacted last year and in fact it was that enforcement wing at OCWI that found -- had come across these N.I., these not investigated cases and actually it was the head of that department, that division that reported this to the governor's office, you know, after he felt that he wasn't getting any good response from DES director Clarence Carter.
Ted Simons Oversight for this new agency. What do we got?
Jim Small: We've got a bunch of different oversight. One thing they did is they continued, there's a legislative oversight panel, they expanded their scope and their role in this. There's a citizens oversight panel that will basically keep an eye on what's going on over there. You know, it's made up of folks from state government, folks from outside state government with the idea of providing a little more transparency and accountability to monitoring what CPS is doing and trying to take them out of the shadows a little bit, which has always been a complaint about the old agency.
Ted Simons: Sounds like internal and external audits going on here?
Jim Small: Yeah, you know, there's definitely going to be a lot of, you know, checking up and keeping tabs on what they're doing, especially when it relates to the backlog of cases that they have in terms of these almost 15,000 cases that have been inactive for more than 60 days. You know, as these case workers have struggled to go back through these 6,500 cases that were discovered in the Fall, you divert your resources from the incoming cases and right now they're getting 940 -- more than 940 -- complaint calls a week into the system so it's bailing water out of a boat with a teaspoon a little bit and so they're going to, you know, some of these audits and this monitoring is going to really work to make sure that they're keeping on pace with the incoming cases and also with whittling down the backlog.
Ted Simons: You mentioned the backlog and being in that leaky boat there. Budget $60 million, what that like 55 for next year and five to close out this year?
Jim Small: Yeah, five for the current year and almost 55 for the upcoming year, you know. A lot of that is aimed at, in fact, getting rid of this back log. It's aimed at hiring new staff, bringing them in, getting them trained and also paying for overtime for the new and existing staff to really start to cut into that 15,000 case backlog.
Ted Simons: How much debate was there on the budget per se and especially the idea of benchmarks to allow for the budget to continue? I know there was some talk regarding benchmarks. It doesn't sound like it went too far.
Jim Small: No, it didn't. Yesterday there was a lot of discussion about it in the Senate. There was an amendment that was offered, it was supported by -- offered by Senator Kelly Ward, a Republican from Lake Havasu City and it was, you know, supported by Andy Biggs and other fiscal conservatives who said look we don't want to keep throwing money at this problem. We've thrown more than $250 million at this over the last several years. And we haven't really seen any results. We want to tie -- we'll give them the first half of the funding, but we want to tie the second half of the funding, make it conditional on them hitting certain goals, on them knocking down the backlog to a certain point or getting staffing levels to a certain point or retention or whatever those benchmarks would have been and the governor's office said that was a nonstarter, they weren't going to go for it. The amendment was ultimately defeated by the Senate yesterday and the House today, a similar amendment was drawn up and it was offered on the floor and there was a quick statement about why, you know, it's fiscally prudent to do this kind of thing, but then the amendment was withdrawn. It was never voted on, recognizing that the Senate hadn't done it yet and second that the governor viewed that as a poison pill and would have rejected the bill and told them to start all over again.
Ted Simons: I know it's an effort to put $3 million, an additional $3 million in there for preventive services and that didn't make it, as well. So you got the budget there, you got the guy in place. You got the name for the agency. When do they open the doors and what's the first order of business?
Jim Small: Effective immediately, the bills had an emergency clause on them, which meant as soon as the governor signed them a little bit after 2 o'clock this afternoon, the Department of Child Safety was officially the new state agency and Charles Flanagan was officially the director of it and that money goes into effect basically right away, so I think their first order of business is, you know, trying to just formalize that transition, that final break and separation from the Department of Economic Security and, you know, for a lot of people, it will be somewhat business as usual as they continue to plow through the backlog cases and deal with the new cases coming in and at the administrative level, it's make sure that that transition is as smooth as possible and while at the same time, trying to keep track, keep on track with everything else they're doing.
Ted Simons: Mentioned the first order of business. What is the first order of tinkering next session from the legislature?
Jim Small: Well, we don't know that yet but, you know, the other thing I think that we have to keep in mind is it's not just the legislature. We're going to have a new governor next year and we don't really know, you know, whoever the new governor is going to be, there's eight candidates that are in the running for it. So we don't know what they're going to want to do and that was one concern, in fact, from some legislators, we're doing this whole thing, we're making all these changes, we may come back here next year and have to do a lot of this over again or redo pieces of it that the new governor doesn't like or add pieces on it that they want to see in addition to what's already there.
Ted Simons: So last question here for those watching or saying this is all fine and dandy but what changes, will things get better? What tangibly changes here?
Jim Small: I think what tangibly changes is you've taken this agency that was a one piece, a large piece, but one piece of a much larger state agency and you've pulled it out and you've kind of separated it off, which allows for a little more scrutiny because it's not wrapped up -- it's not one piece of a piece of pizza, it's kind of its own thing now and now on top of that you've got a new director who seems, you know, again he won over a lot of sceptics and he's committed to getting this done and changing the culture, the institutional culture, I think that's really the big thing that everyone's waiting to see, what's going to happen with that? Are they going to make the fundamental shifts in attitudes towards privacy and towards secrecy and towards a lack of transparency or is this going to be business as usual? I think if it's business as usual, you're going to have a lot of very unhappy legislators and not to mention the public.
Ted Simons: Let the tinkering come next session. Thanks for joining us.