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The Imperative of Investment in Children’s Services

(In a December essay in the Arizona Republic, I addressed the transformation under way in the field of behavioral health. If only such a transformation were the case in the field of children’s services. Unfortunately, we continue to see a disinvestment in children, particularly under the guise of  calls for privatization. That’s the focus of my opinion piece in the Republic’s July 16th issue:

The bottom line: A big job remains to educate the community and policymakers regarding the proper, fundamental, and value-laden roles of government and the nonprofit sector in addressing and investing in social issues.)

The Arizona Republic’s editorial board documented deficiencies in the current system and the adverse consequences of funding cuts to family services (“We’re not done fixing child-welfare system,” July 8).

Robert Robb reinforced the point (“More than money, child agency must reset priorities”) and critiqued the proposed solutions of social welfare advocates for larger funding increases. In this context, Robb referenced Arizona Senate President Biggs’ frustration over his unheeded call for “fresh thinking and new perspectives, rather than continuing to move organizational boxes and throw money at a problem that never seemed to improve.”

The Senator’s desire for originality in problem-solving appears less driven by a sincere interest in viable solutions than by an ingrained philosophy regarding the appropriate role of government and the nonprofit sector in mitigating social issues.

If Biggs had reflected first why improvement in children’s services has been elusive, he might have discovered that it is not for the lack of “fresh thinking and new perspectives” but for the reluctance of ideologically-driven policy makers to invest adequately in such initiatives.

The notion that money has been thrown at services to children is almost laughable, considering the paltry record and downward slide of this state’s allocations.

I am reminded of how many commissions and task forces I’ve sat on over five decades that have focused on children at risk and offered substantive and practical recommendations for systemic reform.

Recall, for example, the final report of the Governor’s special commission on child protective services in 2003 that asked why the horror stories of abused and neglected kids kept happening; that declared the system was neither well-designed nor operated; and that recommended comprehensive changes in structure and operation.

A dozen years later, it’s deja vu all over again, and the promises of change remain unfulfilled.

It may be instructive to contemplate the kind of solutions Mr. Biggs has in mind. One need look no further than the policy agenda of the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose seminars the Senator has attended, to understand why we’re not making progress. At the top of ALEC’s priorities are such “innovations” as privatizing foster care and adoption services and child support enforcement services. The former “allows a state to give for-profit or other corporations contracts to receive streams of tax dollars to manage foster care or adoption processing, including assessing prospective parents’ marital status, income, and religious beliefs.”

Abdicating responsibility and accountability for our children in favor of profiteers is neither acceptable nor ethical.

It is certainly well beyond the time that we challenge the core premises of this circular discussion regarding solutions to the state’s chronic child welfare crisis; that we provide more than band aids and tourniquets; and that we implement readily available and actionable alternatives to the current under-resourced and fragmented web of services:

  • Realignment of funding streams to require collaboration among the various entities that serve children. 
  • Subsidies, general obligation bonds, or public trusts that increase parental access to quality child care, early childhood education, pediatric care, and training in parenting skills. 
  • Incentives for employment development workshops and respite child care that reduce the stress of families at risk for child abuse or neglect.; 
  • An integrated behavioral health assessment and planning process that tracks children enrolled in multiple systems of care and detention and documents the outcomes and efficacy of treatment approaches.

If Biggs and his allies would give such real solutions a chance, we might someday look kids squarely in the eye and say that we practice what we sing in all those songs that say “the children are our future.”

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