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Abuse, neglect soar as economy sours

Citizen Staff Writer



Agencies that protect Tucson’s most vulnerable children are caught in a perfect storm, with a failing economy, a rise in child abuse and sweeping cuts in services that keep families together.

As Tucsonans lost homes and jobs, the number of dependency cases in Pima County Juvenile Court soared by nearly 25 percent in 2008.

And last week, cuts by the Arizona Legislature gutted programs that prevent child abuse and keep kids out of foster care.

“This is one of the unfortunate consequences of a combination of a very bad economy and a dire state budget situation,” said Judge Pat Escher, who presides over Juvenile Court here.

“As economic circumstances deteriorate and people need the safety net, the network is unraveling,” she said.

And left to face the consequences are the children.

Escher is concerned that without support services, more families will lose their children.

When a child is removed from home because of abuse and neglect, Arizona’s Child Protective Services and the courts do what they can to reunify families, Escher said.

Parents are required to follow a plan and complete assignments, which usually include parenting education, counseling and substance abuse treatment.

But budget cuts have wiped out services, leaving parents to wonder if they will be able to keep their families together.

Judge Escher is worried program cuts will undo the court’s work over the past decade to keep children out of foster care.

“If the resources are taken away, it’s going to be difficult for a parent to get themselves into a situation where they can safely parent their child,” she said.

She worries more will end up in foster care.

The long-term outcome of children who grow up in foster care “is not great,” Escher said. They often experience homelessness and are far less likely to complete high school, she said.

Paul Bennett, clinical professor at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, directs the Child Advocacy Clinic there. Through the program, law students represent children in child protective cases in Juvenile Court.

He agrees that cuts in services could harm children.

“If what we’re trying to do is put families back together, if we don’t have the resources to do that, we’re not going to be successful,” he said. “The ability to put families back together is in jeopardy.”

Programs that allow supervised visitation while parents work to get their kids back have been cut. Bennett said those visits are critical.

And stipends to foster families are cut, jeopardizing their ability to properly care for kids.

“We are taking children away from their homes and putting them in homes that are not set up to meet their needs,” Bennett said. “What are we doing here?”

The increase in cases of abuse and neglect is seen at Casa de los NiƱos crisis shelter. The shelter, 1101 N. Fourth Ave., has been full with 45 children for the past six months, said Susie Huhn, executive director. The shelter normally cares for 20 to 25 kids, from newborns through age 12.

“Unfortunately, when the economy tanks, child abuse reports go up,” Huhn said. “And it’s happening at a time when services that help these families have been cut so severely. Our Legislature chose to cut programs that keep children safe and keep families out of foster care.”

Huhn believes a failing economy and lost jobs result in a higher level of stress among parents, and more abuse and neglect.

Last year, about 50 children from newborns through age 5 were removed from homes each month in Pima County, Huhn said. That number now is nearly 120, she said.

“How do they expect us to meet an already rising demand with fewer resources?” Huhn asked. “We’re not going to be able to keep kids safe.”

Huhn predicted her shelter will see more abused kids.

“Families were stressed before the cuts, and I can’t imagine what we’re going to see in the next few months,” Huhn said.

Cuts to programs that keep kids out of foster care make no sense, Huhn said. She said those programs cost $3,000 to $5,000 a year. Placing a child in foster care costs $18,000 a year. “It isn’t saving anything,” Huhn said.

She believes Arizona was hit more quickly than the rest of the country because of the housing market slump. She said Arizona is cutting more services than any other state.

Among those losing services are kin caregivers – grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings – who step in when parents cannot raise children, often due to addiction, incarceration or mental illness.

Relatives, who are often financially strapped, are losing funding and therapy, said Laurie Melrood, director of KARE Family Center, 4710 E. 29th St. KARE provides services to kin caregivers, serving 1,300 families last year.

Subsidies to children are being cut by 20 percent, Melrood said. Children who once received $204 per month now receive $164.

“For many families, this money is used for clothing and food. This is not luxury money,” Melrood said.

The center is bracing for the impact of the cuts.

“Reduction in services and cuts in money could lead to children being given to the state, which is exactly what the state cannot afford,” Melrood said.

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