Ariz. Gov. Brewer calls special session on $60 million overhaul for child services

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has called the state legislature into special session to create a new child-welfare agency, after the current agency was rocked by revelations that workers never investigated nearly 6,600 hotline reports of potential child abuse and neglect.

Brewer said she wants Arizona's 90 state lawmakers next week to begin tackling her $60 million proposal to transform the beleaguered agency into a cabinet-level department focusing on child safety.

The Republican governor said the existing system has been plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability, a shortage of resources and massive backlog of cases.

"If we do not act strategically - and soon - to reverse this damage, the crisis will only continue to worsen," Brewer said in a written statement.

State officials discovered last November that no checks were made into thousands of calls made to a special hotline alleging child abuse and neglect.

Two separate investigations led to policies and procedure changes at the agency and a new director was appointed to oversee operations.

Last month, five top managers were fired as well as their supervisor in connection with the investigations. The five managers complained that they were being made scapegoats for the child welfare crisis.

Brewer, who is leaving office when her term expires at the end of the year, is requesting that the legislature allocate $5 million for the current budget year and another $54.7 million next year for the new agency, to be called the Department of Child Safety.

The money would be used to hire more caseworkers and investigators, important players needed to reduce a backlog of cases and help turnaround the new agency, according to the proposal.

"It is time that we establish a new Department - with a mission focused on child safety, a culture conducive to fulfilling that mission, and the resources to do the job."

A top Democratic lawmaker said the problem has for too long been neglected and the time has come to make needed reforms.

"These next few days will be crucial to changing the course of child safety in Arizona," said Eric Meyer, the state House minority whip.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and David Gregorio)

[Image: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer makes a statement saying she vetoed the controversial Senate Bill 1062 bill, at Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on Feb. 26, 2014. By Samantha Sais for Reuters]