Department of Child Safety

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The state legislature has created a new agency to deal with child abuse and neglect. Charles Flanagan, the director of the Arizona Department of Child Safety, will talk about the new organization and its mission.

Richard Ruelas: Last week, the state legislature created a new agency to help protect children following the discovery of thousands of uninvestigated child abuse cases. Here to talk about his role and his mission for the new agency is Charles Flanagan, Director of the newly created Department of Child Safety. Thanks for joining us this evening.

Charles Flanagan: Thank you for having me Richard.

Richard Ruelas: Well it's been a week. We have to assume the problem is now solved?

Charles Flanagan: Yes, I'm a notoriously impatient person, so they should have been solved a couple of weeks ago actually before this all happened. I think everybody's recognized that this is going to be a long-term process. It's not going to be solved overnight. But the good news is that there have been some tremendous improvements made in a very short period of time and I would like to highlight this again, without the leadership of Governor Brewer, we wouldn't be in this position. Identifying a problem and then standing firm on a solution that included creation of the stand-alone agency and funding it at a level that will for the first time that I know of in the history of Arizona, give us the resources necessary to manage the problem, is a tremendous step forward. And I would love to talk with you about some of the improvements we've made and some of those we have yet to make.

Richard Ruelas: Well, the funding did you get everything you wanted? Already out of the gate there was discussions of how much is this going to cost? Do you feel you're adequately funded to begin this task?

Charles Flanagan: As I've said all along, I supported the Governor's budget when it was initially submitted and I supported this version as well. This version has added some things to it including a specific level of funding for intervention supports programming and treatment that are really critical for what we do. I don't think that anybody believes that these are all the resources that we need but this was a great compromise. Just as the policy bill was. I cannot stress enough how three and a half months' work of intense work by a broad base of people in the Governor's work group led to something as close to a consensus as I've ever seen in the state of Arizona. It also included over 25 groups of individuals and groups that are constituents that got to come in and present and got to participate in the conversations. And so we heard those voices and contributed something that I think is going to stand Arizona in good stead in the future, because it gives us a very solid foundation. It for the first time codifies that prevention is an important strategy that we must implement, and it's quite frankly the most cost effective way of dealing with this, that we are intended to intervene as early and quickly as we can and those cases that have high needs and low risks so we can ameliorate those problems and prevent worse outcomes. It identifies the level of staffing and the purpose of the agency in a way that has not been identified before and I think this will all help us to create a true foundation for an agency of which we can be proud.

Richard Ruelas: And I guess that's the -- this is another thing that was debated during the policy of how the direction changes, even the name, child safety not protection or family reunification. The early intervention, how to prevent a problem from getting to the point where the state actually needs to take a child away. How does that change? What will that look like under this new agency?

Charles Flanagan: Well, I think very clearly, and we all agreed to this that the intent of what we are to do is to prevent the worst possible outcomes. So we must focus first on ensuring that we can identify and intervene in those cases of the most significant abuse and neglect of children.

Richard Ruelas: And we're talking I mean the worst outcome, that would be death.

Charles Flanagan: Death. Serious injury that will affect that child for the rest of their life, emotional trauma that will affect children through the rest of their life and consequently everything we do has an impact on these children and these families. So the goal is to prevent whenever we can, to intervene in such a way so that we can preserve families and provide them the supports and the supervision necessary for them to become loving and safe families for those children, because preservation of those families is always in the best interest of the child when the most serious abuse and neglect is not present and the risk to the child is not that significant. And then if we do intervene, we are going to try to reunify families in those cases where reunification is possible but the first priority of everything we do is the safety of the children with whom we interact. That safety is a full spectrum.

Richard Ruelas: What was the difference before? Cause reunification was also a key part before and protection was also a key part before. Is it just a subtle shift in priorities?

Charles Flanagan: No, actually Richard it's not a subtle shift at all. It's a very clear and distinct shift that now we're focused on the safety of the children first and foremost, there was a time in the United States, and there is still present in other states, a push for reunification at all costs. That cannot be what Arizona does.

Richard Ruelas: We can put the child back and work on getting the family whole again or creating a safe environment.

Charles Flanagan: Exactly so imagine an environment in which you have a meth-addicted mother who manages to do everything right and we are able to reunify the family. Up until now, we have had to stop our involvement with that family once the investigation is concluded and the actions have been taken to reunify. We then step away. Guess what happens? All the same pressures exist, all the same problems exist, and if she relapses and if that becomes a problem again, and that's what we see typically in the most egregious cases, is harm after harm after harm and leading ultimately to death. So now, our focus is going to be on reunification but only if the child's safety is not placed at risk by that reunification.

Richard Ruelas: And then after reunification begins, child safety is paramount, you can still have an open case?

Charles Flanagan: Exactly, we can remain engaged to the best of our ability as long as we can to provide the supports and the supervision that are necessary for those riskiest environments to be successful and then also for those children that we cannot reunify with families for one reason or another, we must work towards permanency much quicker. And frankly I've said this many times, and I just said it this morning to a group of faith based community leaders that I've spoken with, was blessed to be invited to speak with them, the state cannot do everything. There's no way that we can do that. The only way we will succeed is in partnership with those in the community like the faith based community, like service providers, like community organizations, like activist organizations, like child advocacy organizations. And our intent is to become much more inclusive than we've ever been before. And now that is a clear policy shift. We are going to be open and transparent and accountable, starting with me. We are going to ensure that we are partners with people in the community in a way that has not happened before. One of the messages I sent out to our employees recently was stop considering foster and adoptive parents as a resource to be used. Instead, view them as honored colleagues that we have to give information to help make them successful. And support them in such a way so they can become successful. Don't try to sell them a used car and pressure them into taking a child. The pressures are great on all of us. Let's work together so that that placement sticks and the child is in the safest and best environment for them.

Richard Ruelas: When you mentioned transparency and accountability, it has been viewed before as a secret agency, my colleague of the Arizona republic has talked about it being this veiled curtain. Has it also, has that secrecy, well let's deal with the media first, how are you going to change the way reports are given to the public?

Charles Flanagan: Well, first of all, I've made myself available to the media and I've made myself available for many contacts and calls, including problems that have been referred to me by the media so that I can follow up on those absent any story that might be done. Secondly, and I think this is most important, we are challenging the very very conservative and restrictive assessment of CAPTA which is the federal act that protects the privacy of the children and the families that we deal with and we have been able to win little victories by providing information quicker. For example, we were actually told given advice, you cannot respond and confirm or deny something based on a television interview with a chief of police that has said that CPS has been involved and children have been removed until it's put in writing. Really? In this day and age? No, we responded immediately. As Bill Montgomery graciously identified with the death of a child we published information about that death much sooner than was ever the case before because we challenged the belief that we had to wait for the medical examiner's report to come out when we Knew arrests had been effected and this clearly was a death due to neglect and abuse. So as a consequence I think what's happening is people are beginning to trust more, that we will share everything we can. And let me also say we're going to be sharing the good stories of what our people do. We just had an e-mail that I got to see from one of our program managers in the northern region about how the community came together to help a very large family from whom we had to remove a very significant number of children. And as a result of removing them our fear was we would have to split the children up, move them to Phoenix, do whatever we had to do, and instead the community came together. We were able to keep the children together, come up with a resolution for those children that was most ideal. And I applaud our staff for doing that because their heart is there. We just need a resource to work with that will help us.

Richard Ruelas: I mean it's a tough job and the staff seems to have gone through a lot. Also politically, culturally, if you've been in the state a while you've seen a shift from the political wings of we need to protect the children, we need to reunify families, the government shouldn't be in our homes taking our children away, how does this survive that shift? What happens after Governor Brewer is out of office? What happens after, you know, long-time from now when you were removed from your directorship? How do you set a course that stays final?

Charles Flanagan: So Richard, I didn't bring my crystal ball so I don't know what's going to happen. From your lips to God's ear if I can stay in this position long enough to affect those changes that I think will stand us in good stead into the future.

Richard Ruelas: Well I guess part of it is, the public part of it, you have to sort of drum to say this is the course, this is the course that's producing results and this is what we need to do.

Charles Flanagan: You're exactly right. So here's the message, the message is we really do know what works more or less. We have a lot of things we can do to make the system better and Arizona will be a leader, a leader that people look to in a good way instead of a bad way when it comes to child welfare in the future. But here is what we know works, prevention works, it's the fiscally conservative method. Providing some supports and supervision, family education, parenting education, childcare. Any of those things that help people that are in distress and struggling keep the family together and be able to survive in a way that helps them. That prevents a worse outcome later. Secondly, early intervention with supports and services and supervision. Because we've not been able to intervene, because we just didn't have the capacity, now, we have the capacity. If I prove true to my word, we'll hire every position by October and we will train them and field them much sooner than we've ever been able to do before and that's a monumental task and by doing that we prevent worse outcomes. By removing fewer children based upon an objective risk and need assessment, not a gut feeling, not somebody being pressured to think oh I have to remove, because what happens if something bad occurs?

Richard Ruelas: It gets public.

Charles Flanagan: Exactly. Let's not do that. Let's be honest about our failures. Let's be honest about our successes. Let's make sure that we tell the whole story and the whole story to the best of our ability is going to be limited, because we do have to protect the confidentiality of the children and the families but even so we know that these interventions will work, and then we have so many checks and balances both internally and externally that we'll keep a very close eye on what's happening. Someone has told me this is the most thankless job in the world. I've seen a newspaper article to that effect, but you know what this is not about self-interest. This is about doing the right thing for vulnerable children, struggling families in our state and our employees who have a great heart for this and who struggle to do this job.

Richard Ruelas: And then our final minute together, the morale. When you came in in a crisis mode to try to solve these cases, have you seen the spirits lift of the workers or has it ever flagged?

Charles Flanagan: No, it has certainly flagged over the years. It's been very difficult for these people because the good stories never get out, only the bad stories. They're really not respected the way they should be and quite frankly we have many employees who under stress do not do a great job and we have to either support them or help them to find another career quite frankly. But here's what we've seen. What we've seen is that in the beginning with the care team response, it was a crushing work load on top of a crushing work load, and many more people probably left than should have, than, you know, we could have retained had we not been in that crisis mode. But since then we've seen signs of people that are becoming excited about the change, about having a department, about having the resources, about seeing staff come on board, about being involved in policy change. And for the first time in years, we've had more qualified applicants for supervisor positions than we have supervisor positions.

Richard Ruelas: People want to do this work.

Charles Flanagan: They're taking that risk and they do care and we see that every day, how much they put out. There's a story of a young new employee that did everything right to protect children. I want to get that story out. Here's someone who just literally fell off the turnip truck and joined us and did everything right to the point where the chain of command in reviewing this case was applauding and lauding her for the great job she did. That's exactly what we need to do. We need to reinforce to our employees that they are valuable, they're critical to our success, and I think this bill helps us in many ways to accomplish that.

Richard Ruelas: We'll see what happens in the future down the road. Wish you success as a state of Arizona resident to see that we don't see scandals like this keep coming up and we will one day sit you down and just talk about your life story on how a guy who gets a degree in English literature from the University of Amsterdam ends up at a nice agency like this in the state of Arizona.

Charles Flanagan: Sure, I'd be happy to tell that story but it's not about me, it's about the children and our employees and our state.

Richard Ruelas: I appreciate you joining us.

Charles Flanagan: Thank you.

Charles Flanagan:Director, Arizona Department of Child Safety;

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