Arizona Republic: Lawmakers wanted state child-welfare agency to prevent abuse, neglect.

Protecting our children from neglect and abuse is one of the most important functions of our government. Our state budget should reflect that.

When Arizona lawmakers created the Department of Child Safety, they gave it a dual charge: remove kids from situations where they’re being neglected or abused, and prevent neglect and abuse from happening.

Five years later, the agency’s budget shows where the emphasis remains.

Only 1.5% of DCS’ spending is for prevention. Ten times more is spent on children in foster care.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Lawmakers gave the agency specific direction in 2014: As its case backlog and the number of children in foster care declined, money should shift into prevention programs.

The case backlog is down dramatically — a point DCS is proud to make —  but money has not moved into prevention. The agency didn’t even specifically budget for preventive services until fiscal year 2017, documents show. And since then, the budgeted amount, $15.1 million, has remained unchanged.

The number of children in foster care has fallen 19% in the last four years, but those dollars have gone into services for families and kids already in the system instead of prevention. In addition, lawmakers have not put more general fund money toward prevention programs, a review of spending since DCS was created shows.

Now, the agency is facing a $3 million loss in federal funding for a prevention program, Healthy Families, that’s been hailed as highly effective at keeping families intact and reducing the risk that a DCS investigator will knock on their door.

To advocates such as Becky Ruffner, the apparent lack of interest in prevention perpetuates the stream of children entering the state’s foster-care system.

“If we can keep young children out of the child-welfare system, when we know they’re most likely to be abused, reported and removed from their families at high cost to the state, why wouldn’t we want to do that?” asked Ruffner, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse, a nonprofit organization.

Money shift that didn’t happen

In his role as chief of staff to then-Gov. Jan Brewer, Scott Smith guided much of the work that led to the creation of DCS.

The plan, Smith said, was to bring down the number of kids in state care, then put in place programs that would prevent more kids from coming into the foster system. Brewer outlined that strategy in the plan she submitted to the Legislature. Lawmakers included it in their three-year budget plan.

“As the numbers dropped, we thought it would make sense to … invest more on the prevention side,” Smith recalled of the work sessions that produced what is today known as DCS. 

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, was in the room for those discussions. She remembers the emphasis Brewer placed on directing dollars toward prevention as the agency reduced its backlog of unattended reports. But, Brophy McGee said, the agency had other fires to put out.

As for DCS, spokesman Darren DaRonco said the agency can’t find anything that required a funding shift into prevention efforts. And, he added in a statement, the agency can’t move money without legislative approval.

Smith said nothing in the plan obligated future legislatures to follow the direction set by Brewer. And not everyone who helped shape DCS was on board with the prevention pitch.

“Some believed government should not be involved in family life,” Smith recalled. “The old ‘I’m here from the government and I’m here to help’ mantra — and people said, ‘Butt out.’”

Prevention: Not the prime role for DCS

Brophy McGee said there’s also an issue with how DCS’ mission is defined.

DCS’ charge really isn’t prevention, at least not the kind that tries to address problems before the agency gets involved, she said.

“DCS is an intervention agency by design,” Brophy McGee said. “That first knock on the door is our first chance to intervene.”

Advocates such as the Children’s Action Alliance, which was involved in the creation of DCS, say the fact money never got moved into services that could head off involvement with the system points to a larger problem: No one’s really in charge of shaping a safety net to help parents.

“That is a big vacuum in Arizona,” said Dana Wolfe Naimark, the alliance’s CEO. “As we’ve been addressing issues in our child-welfare system, we have not attempted to fill that.”

Adding to the problem is the fact many services that could help families, such as housing aid, child care and health care, sustained deep cuts during the Great Recession and have not been restored.

Efforts to restore some of those services have been uphill battles, Naimark said. Currently, bills to allow the state to spend federal dollars for child care and health insurance for the kids of working-poor families are slowly making their way through the Legislature. 

“Every single step has been difficult,” Naimark said.

Brophy McGee said she believes the agency is at a point where it can start to focus on prevention programs to keep families out of the system.

She introduced legislation to shore up the loss of federal dollars for Healthy Families by using $3 million from the state general fund. The bill never got a hearing, but she says it is an item in ongoing budget negotiations.

Coloring books, baby boxes

DCS echoes Brophy McGee’s view of its charge: It’s mainly to protect kids in its care from being neglected or abused.

“You have to take care of the kids in your care first,” said Sue Smith, who heads DCS’ Prevention Office, which was created in 2015.

But there is a need to prevent families from getting involved in the system.

DCS does that primarily through messages aimed at the general population, such as coordination with other state agencies and nonprofits, and an ongoing billboard campaign that promotes safe sleep for babies.

In a 2018 year-end review, DCS touted its prevention highlights as a “baby box” program that promotes safe sleep and a coloring book.

The boxes are distributed at hospitals to parents of newborns. They are packed with supplies, and the box itself serves as a bed for the infant and reinforces the message that babies are to sleep alone and on their backs to reduce the risk of accidental suffocation such as in their parents’ bed.

The coloring book uses desert critters to illustrate ways parents can keep children safe.

It’s important to remember prevention, in its widest sense, isn’t limited to DCS, Smith said.

“It’s not one person’s job,” she said. “It should be the community’s job.”

Others agree: Affordable housing and child care, substance-abuse treatment and anti-poverty efforts all combine to help keep families stable.