arizona_republic_jessica_powerInvestigations outnumber those of abuse, dominating CPS' work

There was a time when Phoenix mother Jessica Power chose heroin over her son.

Her addiction led her to abandon the child, then 3 years old, with his grandmother and prompted state Child Protective Services to launch a neglect investigation.

Months later, authorities jailed Power for violating probation, and she learned she was pregnant with her second child. Prosecutors offered residential drug treatment to the mother and Caden was born, addicted to methadone, five months later.

Power, 25, and her children are now on their own. It took nearly three years, commitment from caseworkers and counselors, and Power's dedication.
Child abuse gets most of the headlines, but neglect cases dominate child-welfare work. Two out of three CPS reports and investigations involve neglect, and neglect is the reason more than 85 percent of all children are taken into Arizona's foster-care system.

Neglect cases, typically tied to parents' or caregivers' drug addiction, mental illness or poverty, can be the most difficult to resolve.

As with Power and her boys, it takes time, patience, funding and a team of supporters to work through often intractable issues.

The sagging economy has made matters worse, experts say, causing CPS to take more children into Arizona's overwhelmed child-welfare system. At least in the short term, they expect the number of neglect cases to keep rising because of the continued financial strain on families and lack of services that may have helped them in the past.

"There's no question that there are a lot more vulnerable families than there were a few years ago," said Richard Barth, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland. "And there's no question that economic hardship creates more neglect."

What's neglect?

Parents or caregivers are considered neglectful in Arizona if they are unable or unwilling to provide a child with supervision, food, clothing, shelter and medical care and if that failure "causes unreasonable risk of harm to the child's health or welfare."

Child neglect is often more difficult for caseworkers to assess than abuse, CPS officials say.

Just being homeless or using drugs, for example, aren't enough to prove neglect, much less separate kids from their parents.

Even babies born to mothers who use drugs, which typically triggers a CPS investigation at the hospital, could go home with them if someone, like a grandmother, can assure the child's safety.

Likewise, sloppy housekeeping, poor hygiene or mismatched clothing don't necessarily rise to the level of neglect.

"We get a lot of calls of neglect that are more lifestyle issues vs. the children are really at risk," said Esther Kappas, senior policy adviser for the division of children, youth and families at the Department of Economic Security, which oversees CPS. "The house might be dirty, the dishes haven't been done for a couple of days. But it looks for the most part like it's safe."

CPS workers could have grounds to take kids into custody if their living situation were unsafe. Examples include a home with exposed wiring, access to dangerous objects or harmful substances, such as drugs or weapons, or exposure to extreme weather elements.

Caseworkers also may deem children at risk of medical neglect if their basic health needs aren't being met, such as a child infested with lice or suffering from severe tooth decay. Malnutrition is also indicative of neglect.

Among the most common neglect investigations are children left unsupervised, Kappas said.

Arizona has no age requirement for when parents or guardians can leave children alone, but CPS policy considers children at risk if they're "not capable of caring for self or other children."

In abuse and neglect cases, the law requires CPS to consider the likelihood the child would be harmed and how severe that harm might be.

How it's investigated

Initially, CPS caseworkers handle abuse and neglect investigations in much the same way. CPS trains workers to approach every case with a broad view of the family's strengths and weaknesses, ensuring the safety of all children in the home in addition to looking into the allegations that prompted the hotline call.

Caseworkers base their investigations on a 24-chapter policy manual and seek to immediately determine whether the child is safe. They consider dozens of factors from their observations and interviews with children and caregivers.

Abuse is typically easier to see than neglect and the threshold for removing a child from their home tends to be more clear cut. For example, officials could immediately remove a child who showed evidence of physical or sexual abuse if the suspected abuser still lived in the home.

CPS workers have some relatively easy calls with neglect, too, such as children found in a meth lab or left alone in a vehicle while a parent drank in a bar. Those cases also could be prosecuted as criminal conduct under state law.

How it's resolved

A CPS team decides how to proceed: ask a juvenile-court judge for permission to immediately remove the children from their home or proceed with an investigation while the family remains together.

Neglect cases can be more complicated, lengthy and costly to solve than child abuse.

Therapists have developed treatment for parents and children that's been shown to prevent future abuse. But there is no consensus on how to address the root causes of parental neglect, Barth said, largely because their origins are so varied and difficult to treat, such as with mental illness.

"Kids in abuse cases tend to go home more quickly," he said. "There's no clear evidence-based practice that works with neglect cases."

A family can stay together if parents accused of neglect get help meeting the needs of their children, such as medical care, housing or assistance with an incorrigible teen they can't control, said Jacob Schmitt, who was administrator for the state's child-welfare program until his reassignment last month.

"Our first goal isn't to go out and remove a child. Our first goal is to keep children safe," Schmitt said. "If we can keep that child in the home, that's what we would love to be able to do."

If kids are unsupervised because their mother works and can't afford child care, the CPS caseworker might open an investigation to temporarily qualify the family for state-paid child care.

But if the investigation determined the mother wasn't supervising her children because of substance abuse, the investigation would take a different turn.

Recession's impact

The sagging economy has made it harder for families to find help, whether through state-funded programs, non-profits or neighbors.

Longtime child-welfare experts say some of the responsibility for helping families on the edge rests with relatives, neighbors, community groups and churches.

But the recession has been felt everywhere, forcing reductions in state, local and non-profit services for children and families, and leading to job losses and foreclosures in virtually every neighborhood.

Decades of research have shown poverty to be the single most common factor in child abuse and neglect, in part because families are less able to provide for their children's basic needs.

Just within CPS, cuts to the state Department of Economic Security to help balance budgets since 2009 have reduced programs for abuse prevention, family preservation, homeless youths and housing.

"The economy was hard for all the agencies," Schmitt said. "Child welfare wasn't immune to that. A lot of these families might not have come to our attention because they would've gotten help ahead of time."

More government bureaucracy isn't the answer, said Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative Christian-based group.

"It's time for church and community to step up and take care of these needs," Herrod said. "There's a tremendous opportunity for the private sector and the faith-based sector."

Schmitt said relatives, neighbors, community groups and churches have rallied around some families.

He cited several cases where volunteers pitched in to clean and repair homes so the state could return their neighbors' children.

But on the whole, child-welfare agencies have replaced a broader, deeper network of friends, family, neighbors, churches, schools and other community groups that supported families in years past.

"We used to go knock on the door and say, 'Tommy's coming over every day. Is there something I can do?' " said Karin Kline, a 26-year CPS employee now with Arizona State University's Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy.

"The communities have evolved ... to think that CPS is going to take it on."

Impact on children

Neglect can have a devastating and lasting impact on children.

Babies and small children whose parents are addicted to drugs or suffering from depression or other mental illnesses may not get the care and interaction they need for normal physical, emotional and social development, experts say.

These children often have delays in speech and motor skills and may have behavioral problems stemming from their inability to communicate or get the attention of their parents. They also may suffer from attachment disorder, which prevents people from forming normal relationships.

At the Center for Hope, a residential drug-treatment program for pregnant homeless women, mothers work on kicking their drug habit as they repair broken relationships with older children and learn how to parent their newborns.

"Primarily what we see is a lack of attachment and bonding between women and their children," said Kimberly Craig, vice president of women and children's programs for Community Bridges, which runs the Mesa center.

Jessica Power is working hard to provide that nurturing environment for her young sons.

She's fairly sure she'd still be in jail, or at least still using heroin, were it not for the Center for Hope and her CPS caseworker, whom she calls "the most amazing person."

"She helped me and gave me all the resources," Power said. "She never once tried to hold me back."

Her oldest child, Seth, offers a visitor a quick smile and solid handshake.

Two-year-old Caden just wants to be held by his mother, who scoops him up.

"This age I kind of missed, because I was always using," Power said. "I was always high and nodding out on the couch. It's so much more rewarding to be a mom."

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