PHOENIX (AP) — Less than a year after revelations that thousands of child abuse and neglect reports in Arizona had gone uninvestigated, the state has overhauled its child welfare agency and funded it with tens of millions more than in the past.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on Thursday signed into law two bills that created and funded a new child welfare agency, now known as the Department of Child Safety.
"It is a momentous day for Arizona, as we take the boldest and most meaningful step in state history to reform and replace our problem-plagued child welfare system," Brewer said.
The Republican governor said the new agency would "begin to reverse a longstanding crisis and implement long-lasting change" and that "there will be no room for excuses, secrets or faceless decision makers."
The governor's office said the agency will be funded at a total of $845 million once all accounting was tallied for the budget year starting July 1, more than $200 million more than lawmakers allocated just two years ago.
The Legislature had already been pouring cash into the agency because of massive backlogs, but the discovery late last year of more than 6,500 abuse and neglect reports closed without investigation by Child Protective Services prompted a complete agency overhaul.
The governor set up a temporary department in January under Charles Flanagan, the former head of the state's juvenile corrections department. He will also head the new agency.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bills just hours before the governor signed them.
The Senate acted first, nearly unanimously approving the new agency and an extra $60 million in funding. However, senators stripped out an extra $3 million they had approved Wednesday. The money had been intended for prevention services including child care subsidies, stipends for grandparents caring for grandchildren and out-of-home care. Democrats said the programs would have kept children from being neglected, saving money in the process.
The main bill setting up the agency passed unanimously, and just one senator voted against the funding measure. Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said she voted in opposition because her accountability amendment failed.
Her proposal would have held back part of the new agency's funding until it met hiring goals and benchmarks for easing a 15,000 case backlog. Flanagan has pledged to work to eliminate that backlog by the time Brewer leaves office in January.
The House then took up the measures, debating and passing them unanimously.
A group of lawmakers, Flanagan, Brewer's chief of staff and others worked for months to write legislation overhauling the agency.
Brewer said the plan and the deal that led to its quick passage were comprehensive and sound.
"Is it perfect? Probably not. Is it a new beginning? You betcha," Brewer said.
She said it was a new way of Arizona "protecting our children. And it's probably going to end up being the model for the country when we get done with it."
Final votes came on the third day of a special legislative session that featured several speeches from lawmakers hailing the new agency.
Brewer, herself, made a highly unusual visit to senators after their votes. She then stopped in with House lawmakers during their tallies, briefing addressing the chamber where she began her political career three decades ago and sitting next to House speaker Andy Tobin as the measures passed.
Still, as House members advanced the overhaul, they cautioned that their work wasn't done.
"It will take diligence," Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said. "It will take perseverance. It will take vigilance. It will take a lot of effort."