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Child safety is job one of special legislative sesion

I usually use this space to write about the pressing business issues of the day. Things like taxes and regulations and other items critical to job creation in Arizona.

But this week the attention deserves to be on kids in the state’s care.

The problems that have plagued Child Protective Services have been well documented. Anyone who has lived in Arizona for any period of time knows that it is a department about which there is rarely good news. That’s partly because of the nature of the work; no one takes on the daunting challenges facing children and families in crisis because they’re looking for an easy gig and glowing headlines.

But despite the good intentions of many professionals at CPS, it has been an agency in desperate need of an overhaul. Not just a rebranding and a few policy changes at the margins, but a major cultural shift that ensures the health and safety of Arizona’s most vulnerable kids is job one.

Gov. Jan Brewer and the Legislature are poised to put that cultural shift into motion in a special legislative session focused on the creation of an agency that will mark a new beginning for Arizona’s abused and neglected children. This is a culmination of efforts begun over a decade ago that primarily focused on the plight of children who were abused and neglected by the very people they looked to for loving care and support.

Momentum around this overhaul began in earnest in October 2011 when Gov. Brewer established her Child Safety Task Force, which included a broad cross section of lawmakers, members of the judiciary, community advocates and law enforcement leaders like Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who chaired the task force. The governor charged the group with recommending comprehensive reforms to improve the way in which the state oversees children under its care and investigates potential cases of abuse and neglect.

The task force also included Steve Twist. Twist is a nationally recognized advocate for the rights of victims of crime, and has continuously pleaded for a reorientation of our child welfare system to seek the safety of the child first, whether providing services to families in need or rescuing children from harm, as the primary goal of any system charged with protecting children.

Over 10 years ago, Twist contributed to the report “In Harm’s Way,” for then County Attorney Rick Romley. The report recommended for consideration the removal of CPS from the Department of Economic Security bureaucracy and the creation of a separate agency whose primary mission is protection of the child.

In May 2012, the Legislature passed and the governor signed legislation establishing the Office of Child Welfare Investigations. It was OCWI that injected an even greater sense of urgency into the issue of child welfare with the discovery last fall of thousands of uninvestigated reports of child abuse.

The discovery of the not-investigated, or “NI” cases, led to the formation of the Child Advocate Response Examination Team. The CARE Team is made up of legislators and child welfare stakeholders and is responsible for oversight of the NI cases and for submitting substantive policy recommendations to the governor.

What we have known for a while is that CPS’ old way of doing things is indefensible. A new model is required. That’s why the governor in January during her State of the State address announced that she had abolished CPS and created a new Division of Child Safety and Family Services, calling on the Legislature to follow up with the creation of a separate new agency focused exclusively on the safety and wellbeing of children.

The governor’s point person on all these issues and the individual spearheading the culture shift is Charles Flanagan.

This is not Flanagan’s first assignment to repair a situation many deemed irreparable. Back in 2011 he was tasked with overhauling the Department of Juvenile Corrections. Because of his success there, Gov. Brewer tapped him to oversee the rebuilding of the state’s child safety and welfare system.

Flanagan is making moves that are earning praise from inside and outside the system. The changes he’s implementing are making a difference. From upgrading an outdated phone system, to accelerating hiring and training, he’s injecting a new level of accountability, professionalism and even optimism into an agency that seemingly always had a dark cloud over it.

It’s important the Legislature come together in a bipartisan fashion and pass the reforms necessary to chart a new course for kids in the state’s care.

As County Attorney Montgomery said back in 2011, “Arizona’s children deserve no less and have every right to expect more.”

Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is committed to advancing Arizona’s competitive position in the global economy by advocating free-market policies that stimulate economic growth and prosperity for all Arizonans.