By Josh Brodesky
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona Published: 11.27.2007
After nearly a year of intense public scrutiny following the deaths of three Tucson children, Child Protective Services faces the prospect of legislative changes and possible funding cuts.
The agency is in the midst of public hearings about its handling of cases involving three Tucson children who allegedly were killed by their parents.
Legislators want to hold a hearing in December on how CPS handled the case of 5-year-old Brandon Williams, an autistic boy who was killed in March, allegedly by his mother and a friend. That follows a September hearing on how the agency handled the case of 4-year-old Ariana Payne and her 5-year-old brother, Tyler, who were killed last year, allegedly by their father and his girlfriend
Some of the legislative changes under consideration would make CPS case records more open, allow CPS workers to file missing persons reports, give them greater access to criminal history records and open state employee records to the public in the same way as municipal and county employee records.
But with the state roughly a billion dollars in the red, there is also the prospect that the beleaguered agency will take a funding hit, even as it tries to meet public expectations for improvement.
"The governor has indicated it is her intent to hold children's services harmless from the majority of the reductions that would have to occur in agencies to meet the budget deficit," said Ken Deibert, deputy director of the Department of Economic Security, which oversees CPS.
"Any significant budget cuts for our services would certainly have some very concerning repercussions," Diebert said.
State Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican who has taken the lead in the legislative hearings on CPS, said he expects cuts across all state agencies, but he does not want to see a reduction in CPS workers.
"I don't necessarily think things are going to be improved if you lose more caseworkers," Paton said.
Low morale, high turnover
Against that backdrop of controversy and scrutiny, CPS workers continue to push on, handling roughly 35,000 reports a year.
For workers in Pima County, the year has been marked by high turnover and low morale, said Ilene Stern, a program supervisor and investigator.
"Morale is … seriously affected by workload, by media, by criticisms, by high turnover," she said. "It hasn't been good for a while."
Stern mostly handles reports involving children who have been placed with relatives or in foster care. She also oversees an investigator in Ajo and picks up reports on the side, partly because of staffing shortages.
CPS currently has 13 openings in Pima County.
"There are very few of us here for more than five years," Stern said. "I'm here 17 and a half, and I will retire here."
In that time the agency has evolved. Workers have less family contact and more case management, she said. Methamphetamine is prevalent in many cases. There is also an emphasis on in-home services, essentially referrals to family services such as counseling and parenting classes, as a way to keep children with families.
This emphasis on family is also seen in the agency's push for workers to take a more global approach to investigations, essentially looking beyond the black-and-white world of allegations to see what services or needs a family might require.
A recent independent review of the agency's handling of the Payne and Williams cases faulted CPS workers for being too focused on whether the allegations were true rather than the broader family situations and risks that existed.
To encourage a shift in philosophy, the agency has adopted a new assessment tool, which some workers have criticized because of its length. A sample version is roughly 80 pages.
Stern was diplomatic about the new tool, saying that while it took more time to fill out, the fieldwork didn't change, or at least it shouldn't.
"Your face-to-face time shouldn't be affected by your documentation," she said.
In her own handling of cases, Stern adopted this broader investigative approach.
On a warm, late October morning she treks out to White Elementary School on Tucson's far Southwest Side to investigate a report from the school of a young boy with a cut on his ear. Reportedly his father shot him with a disc gun, a small toy gun that fires plastic discs.
Stern interviews the boy about the cut, as well as his two older brothers, who are also students at the school. Her focus, however, quickly shifts from the cut, which is fairly small and clearly accidental, to concerns about a gun in the home and the employment situations of the parents.
After about an hour and a half interviewing the three children separately, she heads to the parents' house.
Neither parent is working full time. The mother goes to beauty school. The father works construction jobs but has been staying home to watch their young daughter. Stern gives them a referral for day-care services, which would allow the father to work more.
"They were very cooperative," she said. "This job is often sorting through who is pointing the finger at who. Part of my job is to put that information together."
In the public eye
There is no doubt public pressure about the handling of the Payne and Williams cases affected morale at the agency.
During the ride-along, Stern remarked that the Arizona Daily Star's coverage of the cases did not reflect the personal side of the work, or the workers.
And this summer, after the Star ran an article quoting state Rep. Steve Farley — a Tucson Democrat who took a ride-along with a CPS worker and has been supportive of the agency — a number of CPS workers forwarded the article by e-mail, commenting on how they had found a supporter.
"So often we only get the very negative media, and while some of that is included here, we now have someone supporting us," wrote Karin Kline of the DES public information office.
Lillian Downing, who heads CPS in Pima County, remarked via e-mail that perhaps the comments from Farley would help "turn the tide."
But Paton said the public scrutiny has brought about some needed changes to the agency, notably the requirements for workers to check court records and not to date clients or former clients — policy changes that he hopes to make law.
"You can see the results of an agency that's kind of been hidden away, and there have been some really bad things that happened," he said. "At the end of the day you see that because of the public's attention on what's going on, that scrutiny ultimately led to changes that they've made in their policies."
● Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 807-7789 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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