State Sen. Kate Brophy McGee: 'Speaking up for the kid'

One of my top priorities at the legislature is fighting for Arizona’s most vulnerable populations. There is no population more vulnerable than children born into abusive homes who cannot speak for themselves. When I learned of Alexandria, a child who was starved, beaten, and abused, I knew the Department of Child Safety required further reforms. I’m fighting to drastically reduce the number of children in state custody and provide them with safe and loving homes.

Faces of child welfare | State Sen. Kate Brophy McGee: 'Speaking up for the kid'

The story that sticks with Kate Brophy McGee, the one that motivates her and chokes her up and worries her so she can't sleep, involves a little girl who was not found in time.

"Alexandra was a little girl who died one week short of her fourth birthday, weighing all of 15 pounds," Brophy McGee says, her piercing blue eyes tearing up.

"She'd been starved and beaten, abused, and obviously was the child who was singled out by her parents, who remarkably — I believe they both were meth addicts, I believe the mom was a prostitute — but anyway, Alexandra was the one who didn’t make the cut."

The story hit during the Republican lawmaker's fifth year at the state Legislature, where she is widely viewed as the go-to legislator on child welfare. The year before, she had sponsored a bill that overhauled what was then called Child Protective Services.

But despite the overhaul, despite the sharpened emphasis on protecting kids, Alexandra Tercerro slipped through the cracks. The parents claimed Alexandra and her brother were in Mexico when child-welfare workers came calling to check on the children.

But the little girl was in Arizona, within state jurisdiction, hidden from caseworkers. Until she turned up at a Tucson hospital, dead.

It was a painful discovery, one that made Brophy McGee question what more could be done.

“So she became a symbol for me about the things we need to do around these babies who are too young to speak for themselves, who have no one in their lives who cares," she said.

For Brophy McGee, a mother of three grown sons, with no personal involvement with the child-welfare system, situations like Alexandra Tercerro's perplex her.

“I suspect or imagine in the cases of these children that there is soulless evil at work," she said. "I can’t imagine what Alexandra's parents were or weren’t thinking."

Still, she understands these cases are the exception, not the rule.

In her current role as a policy maker, she sees the need to help families who are struggling, but also the importance of enforcing personal responsibility.

Both dynamics are in play, she said, as the state works to reduce the number of Arizona children in state custody, a number that today stands at 14,929. She attributes that figure — which has been on a steady decline from a high-water mark of 19,000 — to the effects of the opioid epidemic and the setbacks dealt to many families during the Great Recession.

“What you find with those families is you can get them some help, get them back, get them started, and they’re independent again. There are other families or individuals that expect the government to solve their problem.

"The balance is somewhere in between."

That middle ground, she says with a smile, "is apparently my role in the Legislature."

"At the end of the day, where I go and why I do this is because someone needs to be speaking up for the kid.”