/ Modified feb 3, 2012 8:51 p.m.

AZ Week: State Needs Improved Child Safety System

From law enforcement to Child Protective Services worker caseloads, upgrades sought

Arizona's child safety program must be reformed through added resources, tighter laws and law enforcement and an ongoing statewide dialogue, legal and child advocacy specialists say.

As many as 48 child abuse deaths have been reported in the state in the last three years, many of them in homes that had been visited by Arizona Child Protective Services caseworkers or law enforcement officers.

That led Gov. Jan Brewer last year to name a Child Safety Task Force, headed by Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who completed a report and submitted its recommendations to Brewer at the end of December.

One recommendation, for creation of an Office of Child Welfare Investigations, has raised questions about what it will mean for CPS caseworkers and families.

"The reality is that law enforcement's role is not going to be any greater or really any different than what it is right now when it comes to implementation of a joint investigation protocol," Montgomery said in an Arizona Week interview.

"The emphasis in talking about law enforcement was the desire to have child welfare investigators more aware of the role of law enforcement and the sorts of tools and techniques law enforcement uses in this area so that there would be greater assistance, more effective investigations and more productive involvement of CPS in that part of it," he said.

Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of the Children's Action Alliance, a child advocacy agency, said in an Arizona Week interview that law enforcement agencies and child safety workers must work together on child abuse prevention. She called current arrangements for such coordination a "fragile model" that needs to be beefed up and made consistent throughout the state.

Additionally, Naimark said, the CPS system "is really struggling under the weight of what's happening in our communities and budget cuts ... " She called for more resources to train caseworkers, reduce their caseloads and give them the pay and other support they need.

CPS is housed in the state Department of Economic Security, headed by Clarence Carter. Carter said in an Arizona Week interview that he is leading the agency to make changes and bring efficiencies to the system that will allow caseworkers to operate better. That is in lieu of adding more resources, he said.

"If you look back at the history of Arizona's Child Protective Services system, there have been these sorts of ebbs and flows for more than 20 years," Carter said. "In other incarnations, there have been resources thrown at it, and that hasn't made the outcome better."

Child abuse cannot be eliminated, but the system can stand significant improvement, he said.

"We endeavor as an agency, as a community, to run the strongest child protective service system possible," Carter said. "But the best, most effective system will not end child tragedies. That is an unfortunate circumstance of our society."

Reporter Michael Chihak further explored the issue of child safety for tonight's Arizona Week. Watch it now:

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