House approves CPS bills
Measures would require child-protection agency to release records
Amanda J. Crawford
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 20, 2008 12:00 AM
Child Protective Services is the state agency charged with protecting Arizona’s children, but exactly what they do in most cases – even those in which the child has died from abuse – has remained largely hidden from public view.
A bill approved by the Arizona House of Representatives on Wednesday would change that. It would require the agency to release records when a child is killed or seriously injured from abuse or neglect, unless the prosecutor determines this would cause material harm to an investigation.
House Bill 2454, which now goes to the Senate, is part of a package of reforms introduced in the wake of legislative hearings in the fall on the deaths of three Tucson children whose families were involved with CPS. Other bills approved by the House this week would make state employees’ disciplinary records open to public inspection and open some court hearings on custody decisions to the public.
Rep. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, said he believes public scrutiny will help make meaningful reforms at the child-welfare agency.
“Our whole principle of government is checks and balances, and the ultimate check and balance is for the people to know what is going on,” said Paton, sponsor of HB 2454. “And the one thing this agency has been missing is real public scrutiny.”
David Bodney, an attorney at Steptoe & Johnson who represents The Arizona Republic, said there has long been a “culture of secrecy” at CPS: The agency usually argues that one law or another prevents them from releasing even basic information on cases to the public and media. Current law allows the agency to release summaries in cases of child death or near-fatality. But Bodney said those summaries are “practically useless” with information that is either inadequate or sometimes misleading.
Last year, The Republic and the Arizona Daily Star sued CPS for information on the deaths of three young Tucson children, Brandon Williams and Ariana and Tyler Payne, who died after CPS investigated allegations of abuse.
The newspapers won, which allowed the legislative hearings on the children’s deaths to be open to the public and the media.
Rep. Kirk Adams, who chaired the hearings in his government committee and sponsored some of the CPS reform bills, said those hearings and the media coverage of the deaths led to the House passing two other reform bills to address problems found in those cases. One requires CPS to follow custody orders, which didn’t happen in the Payne case, when the kids were placed with their father, now accused in their murder. The other requires CPS to notify law enforcement when a child is missing, something that Adams has said might have saved 5-year-old Brandon Williams.
“I, in my office, witnessed the power of public records in affecting the public good,” Adams said on the House floor.
Adams and Paton worked with officials from CPS, the Governor’s Office, other lawmakers and stakeholders in crafting the reform package.
Some Democratic lawmakers and the Governor’s Office have expressed concerns about one piece of HB 2454 that allows the agency to challenge a prosecutor’s decision not to release information. Other provisions allow the public or media to challenge any decision not to release records.
Mike Haener, a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Janet Napolitano, said the governor worries that including the agency in that part of the bill could set up an adversarial relationship with prosecutors, whom it should be working with cooperatively. The governor is otherwise supportive of the proposal, he said.
But others say they worry that releasing information on children’s deaths could harm other family members. Rep. Pete Rios, D-Hayden, called the bill a “bad piece of legislation” that has the potential to “re-victimize” other children, especially in rural areas.
“The concerns that I have is that we open CPS records and we provide information, but even if we cross out names . . . people are still going to know who we are talking about,” he said. “They are going to know the victims, the siblings, other people in the household that may have been physically abused, sexually abused. . . . I don’t want to re-victimize the victims.”