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Updated May 27, 2014 - 5:11 pm

Arizona lawmakers taking on child welfare overhaul

PHOENIX -- The Arizona Legislature briefly convened Tuesday for the first day of a planned three-day special session to debate Gov. Jan Brewer's proposal for overhauling the state's child welfare agency. But little actual work was accomplished as last-minute tweaks to the legislation delayed formal introduction of two enabling bills.

House and Senate members were called to order and then broke into small groups to be briefed on the proposal to create a new Department of Child Safety and give it an extra $60 million to get up and running.

A panel of lawmakers, new agency chief Charles Flanagan, Brewer's chief of staff and others worked for months to write legislation remaking the former Child Protective Services (CPS) department.

Brewer wants $60 million in new funding to separate CPS from its parent department, deal with a backlog of nearly 15,000 cases and strengthen other services. The new agency will also have new oversight and transparency provisions.

But the legislation itself -- a complex overhaul that requires rewriting entire agency-enabling legislation to separate the new agency from the Department of Economic Security -- was still getting final adjustments even as lawmakers met.

Looming over the day's meetings was a proposal from top Republican leaders to add more accountability. Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin both want benchmarks set to ensure the agency is hiring the workers it promises and making significant progress on a backlog nearing 15,000 cases.

But the governor rejected an initial proposal that members said would pull back some of the extra funding if those benchmark were not met.

``Gov. Brewer has been clear to them that she won't accept piecemeal funding or benchmarks tied to funding,'' her spokesman Andrew Wilder said.

Tobin said lawmakers are trying to get the accountability they want without making the legislation unpalatable to Brewer, who must sign the bills.

``She wasn't happy if half the money is going to be a risk over a benchmark in two or three months,'' Tobin said. ``We're trying to work our way around that.''

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who has worked on CPS issues since 2008 and served on the panel that came up with the overhaul plan, said its accountability is robust. Provisions include specific requirements for the state child abuse and neglect hotline; how criminal and non-criminal investigations must be handled; a separate prevention-services bureau; and a new inspections bureau to ensure the rules are being followed.

``I've heard the criticisms, and they are valid concerns,'' Montgomery said. ``But I think once folks get an opportunity to look through the actual legislation ... I think they'll see a number of different areas where accountability is provided for.''

Democrats are expected to call for more spending on preventative services. But Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, who also was on the panel that drafted the proposal, said that's probably not going to happen. Once the backlog of cases is addressed, more money could be available for early intervention and prevention, she said.

``We have limited resources, and clearly we have to handle the cases that are in the system already,'' McCune Davis said. ``If I had my way, we'd be putting more money on the front end, because I believe we need to alleviate pressure on the system.''

The Republican governor proposed the overhaul after revelations late last year that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect reports were closed without investigation by the old Child Protective Services department.

Brewer set up a temporary department in January under a new leader: the former head of the state's juvenile corrections department. The Legislature gave her about $59 million to help remake the agency in the upcoming budget.

The additional $60 million the governor wants brings total agency funding to $827 million in the budget year that begins July 1. That's up from $626 million two years ago. The plan adds extra child welfare and criminal investigators and creates bonuses for new caseworkers who stay past 18 and 36 months in an effort to reduce turnover.

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