March 7, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The Arizona Legislature is considering a bill that would limit the number of complaints to which its Department of Child Safety would be required to respond. Current Arizona law requires the Department to maintain a hotline residents can call to report suspected child abuse or neglect. House Bill 2522 would permit Department employees answering the hotline to not make reports of many calls. The result of no report being made would be that the allegations made on the call would not be investigated by DCS.
On one hand, that’s an attempt to address a problem all similar state agencies face – claims of abuse or neglect that either can’t be or don’t need to be investigated. The federal agency that collects data from the states on child abuse and neglect is the Administration for Children and Families that’s part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Last year it reported that state agencies received about 3.2 million complaints alleging harm to children. But a whopping 80% of those complaints were so trivial/incomplete/old/nonspecific/etc. that child protective workers couldn’t follow up on them, didn’t need to or investigated and found no risk of harm.
Unsurprisingly, Arizona officials had much the same experience as this article shows (Mohave Valley Daily News, 2/20/16).
The hotline receives about 125,000 calls a year and currently generates about 52,000 reports that all require investigation under state law.
By any stretch of the imagination, that’s a colossal waste of time and energy on the part of an agency that’s stretched too thin as it is. So HB 2522 would reduce the number of reports DCS employees would be required to generate and the number of complaints investigated. In the process it seeks to make more efficient use of DCS resources in dealing with actual cases of child abuse or neglect.
Here’s the operative language from HB 2522:
E. EXCEPT FOR CRIMINAL CONDUCT ALLEGATIONS, THE DEPARTMENT IS NOT REQUIRED TO PREPARE A DCS REPORT IF ALL OF THE FOLLOWING APPLY:
1. THE SUSPECTED CONDUCT OCCURRED MORE THAN THREE YEARS BEFORE THE
COMMUNICATION TO THE HOTLINE.
2. THERE IS NO INFORMATION OR INDICATION THAT A CHILD IS CURRENTLY BEING ABUSED OR NEGLECTED.
Interestingly, “criminal conduct” is restricted to only behavior that would constitute a felony. So misdemeanor violations could go unreported under the bill.
That’s the positive gloss on HB 2522. The negative is that, for all its good intentions, the bill looks like an attempt to tailor the realities of child abuse and neglect to the resources the state is willing to allocate to them, rather than the other way around.
Arizona, like so many other states, tries to do child protection on the cheap. Year after year, it indulges in the happy fantasy that too few caseworkers can do too much and do it effectively. They can’t. Poorly paid employees who often are asked to handle twice the caseloads called for by industry standards tend to do a poor job of protecting children.
Because of that, periodically there’s a scandal, usually involving some horrific –often fatal - abuse of a child. The press flies into a rage, the governor issues dire proclamations, the agency is reorganized, heads roll, etc. But what doesn’t happen is that the legislature provides sufficient funding for an agency desperately in need of it.
The latest scandal to hit Arizona’s DCS was the discovery that some 6,000 reports of child abuse or neglect had simply slipped through a bureaucratic crack. They hadn’t been investigated and no one knew whether children were harmed or not. That failure was a direct and obvious result of too few caseworkers to deal with the volume of complaints.
So HB 2522 looks like an effort to keep funding levels the same by simply restricting what DCS needs to investigate. Yes, the state receives too many unnecessary calls. But as sure as the sunrise, HB 2522 will, if it becomes law, result in greater risk to children who need the very protection DCS exists to provide.
I’ve said before that more money isn’t the final answer to what ails children’s welfare agencies. The final answer is a change to the way they carry out their legislative mandates. A greater emphasis on providing needed services to biological parents so they can care better for their children is the best way states can protect children. That includes a de-emphasis on foster care and a change in agency cultures that too often include taking too many children from too many parents.
HB 2522 won’t do any of that. Reducing unnecessary paperwork for DCS is fine, but it can never substitute for the type of wholesale changes that effective child protection requires. That takes money to attract and retain quality caseworkers and a new approach to keeping kids out of harm’s way.
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