Proposed bills deal with problems in child welfare system
Almost exactly one year ago, the images of Ariana and Tyler Payne looked out at us from our newspapers and TV screens.
Ariana’s body had been found stuffed in a box inside a storage facility. Her brother Tyler’s body has never been recovered.
Many things would happen in the case: confidential briefings, hearings, negotiations over policy, media revelations of mistakes.
But for both of us, it always comes back to the haunting pictures of those two children and the nagging sense that the state of Arizona could have done something to prevent their deaths.
From the beginning, there were puzzling statements from Child Protective Services at variance with those from law enforcement. Strict confidentiality laws made it nearly impossible to find out what really happened.
We signed confidentiality agreements to learn the truth in the case. What we discovered shocked us: Court orders were ignored, and CPS policies were broken.
These problems needed to be seen and debated in the light of day – not behind closed doors in the basement of the Capitol.
Ariana and Tyler were not the only children killed who died after their cases were investigated by the state.
They were followed by Brandon Williams and eventually three more children. All died here in southern Arizona within one year.
It became clear to us there were serious problems in our child welfare system, and after months of hearings and investigation, we have offered several bills to deal with them this session.
One of the biggest problems with CPS is the lack of cooperation with law enforcement. Too often, CPS does not call the police when a crime has been committed or when caseworkers accidentally taint evidence needed to prosecute a crime.
For their part, CPS charges that law enforcement often does not responds to calls to come to the home.
What is known is that of more than 600 cases of serious child abuse in Pima County last year, only about one third were investigated jointly.
HB 2455 calls for CPS and law enforcement to work together to protect children and to notify the public when they do not.
Children who have been raped or assaulted should be treated as victims. Parents who commit these acts should be treated as criminals.
But the cooperation should not end there. Between 400 and 700 suspected crime victims, such as Brandon Williams, go missing every year in this state.
Better communication between law enforcement and CPS is needed to find these kids. We propose legislation that would put their names in the data bases police routinely use.
The best way to make sure government is doing its job is to make sure it does it in the open.
CPS has legitimate concerns about protecting the confidentiality of children, but what about when those children are dead? Who are we protecting then? A bureaucracy? A criminal?
We fought to open the records of Ariana, Tyler and Brandon because we felt accountability was needed for the terrible mistakes that were made.
As soon as the records were opened, the agency began making internal changes in policies, addressing the criticism it was receiving.
Opening those records is a deterrent for future negligence and allows us to learn from mistakes. That is why we propose greater public access to case files of fatalities or near fatalities. Some names and information, such as siblings or informants would be redacted.
We also propose that the disciplinary records of all state employees – not only CPS workers – be opened the same way that city and county employees’ records are.
Taxpayers have a right to review the records of the jobs they fund.
We want to ensure that children are never again placed with someone whom a court has deemed not even worthy of visitation rights.
We have negotiated with many parties in drafting these bills. We sat down with conservatives and liberals. We met with the Children’s Action Alliance, prosecutors, victims’ rights advocates and the governor’s staff to create the very best solutions.
Most important, we have read the thousands of e-mails that have flooded our office from members of the public. We applaud all participants for their good faith efforts in negotiating these vital improvements to child welfare.
Improving child welfare is a multifaceted problem that is not prone to silver-bullet solutions. While this legislation is not the final answer, it does represent real progress.
After hundreds of hours of preparation, work and negotiation, these bills are now nearing the finish line. We are committed to doing all in our power to ensure their passage, and we encourage our colleagues in the Legislature to support this legislation.
We also call upon Gov. Janet Napolitano to join us in making Child Protective Services more accountable, more effective and more transparent by signing these bills.
It is too late to save Ariana, Tyler and Brandon. But it is not too late for Arizona’s leaders to do the right thing.
Republican state Reps. Jonathan Paton and Kirk Muse represent Tucson and Mesa, respectively, in the Legislature.
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