PHOENIX (AP) — Children's advocacy groups are looking at a decision by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to replace the state's troubled child welfare agency with a new Cabinet-level division as a sign that she's serious about protecting children — even as they await details on how the new agency will operate.
Brewer announced Monday during her annual State of the State address that she is dissolving Child Protective Services after a recent scandal that "breaks my heart and makes me angry."
Investigators in November said the agency had failed to look into more than 6,500 reports of abuse and neglect.
Brewer's executive order puts the state's Juvenile Corrections director in charge of the new Child Safety and Family Services Division.
Children's advocacy groups praised the decision but said a long-term solution has to include early intervention to prevent child abuse and a larger network of resources. The advocacy groups and some Arizona lawmakers had been pressing for the agency to be moved out from beneath the state Department of Economic Security, which her decision did.
"We can't continue business as usual," said Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and chief executive of the Children's Action Alliance. "The hard work begins now."
Sen. Chester Crandall, R-Heber, said the name of the child welfare agency can change but it won't mean much until laws are put in place to govern it and money is set aside to run it.
The discovery of the uninvestigated reports came after years of criticism of CPS and problems with understaffing, chronic backlogs and child deaths. Brewer got the Legislature to add 200 new workers last year. And a newly created law enforcement team started screening cases and investigating those involving criminal allegations.
It was the law enforcement team that found the thousands of ignored cases.
Some Arizona lawmakers said they were troubled that Brewer created the division without any input from the Legislature. Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, the House minority leader, said the division would have to earn his support.
"Quite frankly, her appointee that was heading up CPS is what got us in this mess in the first place," he said. "And now she just did another appointee for what seems like a new entity without any input from us again."
State Juvenile Corrections Director Charles Flanagan, who has been overseeing a special team to investigate problems within CPS, was tapped as the new division's director. The latest tally from the team shows that more than 3,000 children connected to the reports of abuse and neglect now have been seen by social workers or police. Nearly all the cases that were ignored from 2009 through November have been assigned to investigators.
Kathy McLaughlin, executive director of the Prescott-based Arizona Child and Family Advocacy Network, said the new division should be more manageable and more accountable. Flanagan will report directly to Brewer.
"I have every faith that the governor chose the right person," she said.
Brewer said she will call on the Legislature to work with her to codify the new division. She said child safety must be the priority and become embedded in the fabric of the division.
"Enough with the uninvestigated reports of abuse and neglect," Brewer said. "Enough with the lack of transparency. And enough with the excuses."