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CPS Needs Support, and We Must Find It

Op-Ed By Shay Bilchik

My Turn
The Arizona Republic

"I could make a mistake. I'm a good worker, but I'm human. I could miss something . . . I could make the wrong choice or I could (fail to locate a child's family). Everyone wants us to do it and do it now. But when you're torn in eight different directions, it's extremely difficult to focus and make ideal choices."

These chilling words were spoken by a child welfare worker in New Jersey who often works from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. to meet the needs of the children assigned to his caseload.

But the sentiment expressed by that worker is echoed many times over in virtually every state. Arizona Child Protective Services (CPS) worker Cindy Hicks recently told The Arizona Republic: "I would lay awake at night worrying that some kid would get hurt because I couldn't get to it that day."

These workers are voicing a central truth about child protection and child welfare work: Child welfare work is labor-intensive. Caseworkers must visit families' homes to make sure they are safe, monitor their clients' progress and make sure every child is on the way to finding a permanent home. This cannot be done unless workers are able to spend quality time with children, families and caregivers.

This challenge is not unique to Arizona. Child welfare agencies across the country are experiencing a workforce crisis that leaves many children in a precarious position. With annual turnover rates that often exceed 50 percent and position-vacancy rates that often surpass 12 percent, workers cannot possibly perform up to their potential. Arizona's case managers know only too well the impact that the state's 14.6 percent turnover rate has on their ability to serve children.

But Arizona's auditor general seems to believe nothing is the matter.

The Child Welfare League of America set the standard for CPS caseloads at no more than 12 active investigations per worker per month, but Arizona's workers generally pursue 15 or 16 investigations per month. The auditor general believes the state meets this standard, but uses estimates that include supervisors who do not work directly with children.

Analysis by that office also relies on data gathered during the summer, when reports of abuse and neglect are generally lower, because reporters such as teachers and bus drivers do not come into contact with children.

Ideally, the nearly 700 workers now employed by Arizona CPS should be increased by 150. Until that happens, how many children will slip through the cracks?

Further complicating the issue of caseloads and the demand for services is a lack of resources, insufficient training and poor financial compensation. In Arizona, the starting salary of a CPS specialist 1 with a master's or bachelor's degree is $26,526, well under the national average. One worker reported that he cannot always get a car to visit clients, and he's often forced to enter dangerous situations alone, something that would never be expected of law enforcement officers in a similar position.

It is our collective responsibility to help children by ensuring that everything humanly possible is done to keep them safe.

Other states have found a way to deal with this issue: In 1998, Delaware passed legislation requiring the state agency to project the number of child abuse and neglect cases. The state's General Assembly must allocate staff and funding based on the CWLA caseload standards. Arizona's Legislature can do the same.

It can be done.

Arizona has an opportunity to be a leader by investing resources to ensure that children are safe.

The state's vulnerable children deserve no less.

The writer is president and CEO of Child Welfare League of America

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