Child Protective Services is falling down on providing supervised parental visits and other critical services, private agencies hired by the state to provide those services say.
But CPS denies that's the case.
CPS announced it was cutting funding for supervised visits and parent assistance in December due to a $35 million budget shortfall, but reversed the decision a few weeks later in response to public opposition.
Flora Sotomayor, assistant CPS director, said during that time caseworkers were paid overtime to oversee court-ordered parental visits, and no families missed any visits.
But representatives of three agencies with state contracts to provide monitors for families when visitation must be supervised and at least one Pima County Superior Court official dispute those claims.
They say the number of cases being referred to private agencies is down, even though demand for CPS interventions is up - a point CPS spokeswoman Tasya Peterson, acknowledged, saying "the child welfare system is experiencing incredible growth in the number of children entering care, as well as increased need for services."
Sotomayor said she doesn't know how much was paid out in overtime to CPS caseworkers, who are already so overwhelmed the Legislature voted to spend $4.4 million to hire 50 additional case workers and is considering another $18.7 million to hire150 more.
Because CPS doesn't know how much it paid out in overtime, there is no way to determine whether it would have been cheaper to just continue referring cases to the contract agencies.
There are between 3,300 and 3,400 children in foster care in Pima County currently and in a majority of the cases, a judge has filed an order granting visitation rights to their parents.
Sotomayor denied there was ever a time when a child with a court order missed a visit with a parent.
She said many service providers chose to stop overseeing visits when they were told about funding issues in December. When that happened, CPS workers stepped in and oversaw the visits themselves, Sotomayor said.
"Our workers put in a tremendous amount of overtime," Sotomayor said. "The visits didn't stop. The visits continued with someone else doing them."
Stephen Rubin, Pima County Juvenile Court administrator, and Bob Heslinga, executive director of Aviva Children's Services, disputed Sotomayor's assertion that no children missed a visit in December.
"That's completely false," Rubin said. "Numerous children missed numerous visits."
In fact, judges were highly concerned because CPS was technically in contempt of court every time a child missed a court-ordered visit, Rubin said.
Paula Dwornicki, associate director of the Easter Seals Blake Foundation, said she spoke with parents whose services were cut and found CPS did oversee some visits, but they were limited to one or two visits for the month, instead of the normal one to two per week.
In addition to supervising family visits, the agencies provide counseling to parents hoping to reunify with their children. After they were notified of the cuts, most were forced to lay off employees.
Aviva lost 32 employees; Casa de los Niños said goodbye to six; and Easter Seals Blake Foundation let three go and transferred two others. They are among 11 agencies with contracts in Tucson.
Peterson said CPS never actually intended to cut those services, but "a misunderstanding within the department" gave that impression to both CPS staffers and the service providers.
She said CPS was able to temporarily resolve its funding issues with "one-time resources," while continuing to work on more permanent solutions.
One of those solutions is restructuring to create a new centralized unit responsible for referring families to the service providers, as part of an effort "to be more fiscally responsible while meeting its obligations," Peterson said.
Heslinga said that not only were many children deprived of visits with their parents in December, but there may be some who still haven't seen their parents. Aviva is the largest of the 11 providers in Southern Arizona.
Visits keep parents focused on completing their case plan and reuniting with their children, and they provide the children with hope, Heslinga said. That's important, he said, because the parents are "the only family they've known and to say the parents don't love their kids and the kids don't love them isn't true."
Two months later, Aviva is still only overseeing 150 visits a week, down from 250 a week before the announcement, Heslinga said, and the number of referrals for parent-aide services has "stalled."
Dwornicki said the Blake Foundation is back to supervising 35 to 40 visits per week, but has received only a few parent-aide referrals. Before December, it provided services to 25 to 35 parents per month.
When parents don't immediately receive the services they need, the entire reunification process is slowed, Dwornicki said.
Sotomayor said CPS has issued more than 200 referrals to its service providers in Pima County since mid-December, and some service providers have even higher caseloads than they did before.
The number of referrals will go up even more as CPS workers relinquish visits back to service providers, Sotomayor said.
Casa de los Niños was allowed to keep overseeing court-ordered visits in December, but still had to lay off six employees, said Joanne Karolzak, the group's director of child and family services.
Her agency oversees about 50 visits per month and provides parent-aide services to roughly 20 families per month.
Now Karolzak said she is being told to increase her staff again. She understands the needs of the children are paramount, but she doesn't want a repeat of what happened in December.
"We're being told to ramp up again, but obviously we're a little shy about charging forward with that," Karolzak said. "Slowly we'll edge back up, but we're probably not alone in taking that tack."
Dwornicki is in the same boat. So far she's rehired two of the three people she laid off, one at part-time hours. She's reluctant to hire anyone else.
"We fear that all of a sudden we're going to be told to stop again," Dwornicki said. "I'm being cautious because the last thing I want is to tell the two I laid off in December is 'You've got to go' again."
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