Reporter: Craig Smith Producer: Forrest Carr
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Massive confusion.
That was the scene after Arizona Child Protective Services, CPS, cut off funding for supervised parental visits just in time for the holidays.
CPS won't say, but the agency's internal documents speak volumes.
Our 9 On Your Side investigation found a trail of missed cues, ignored warnings, and broken promises.
Christmas was coming as workers for Aviva Childrens Services turned in the equipment they used to help reunite troubled families. Parents who depended on the supervised visits, parents such as Margarita Verdugo, wondered when they'd see their children again.
She told KGUN9, "Its just not knowing that scares me, because I love my children so much."
Her family was caught in a budget bungle, where Aviva and similar agencies laid off staff, and canceled parent child visits, all because CPS suddenly cut off the flow of money.
After agency officials ducked for cover, 9 On Your Side used Arizona's Public Records Law to obtain internal documents. The records show that Arizona Baptist Children's Services began sending up distress rockets by email at the end of September.
With visitation demand through the roof, the bottom of the budget was already in sight---eight months early.
On October 1st Andrea Stuart, the Statewide Contract Director for Arizona Baptist Children's Services asked CPS whether more money, known in bureaucratese as "CURO units" would be available, saying, her organization staffed up based on what CPS said it needed, "....with the assumption that units could be increased as they have in the past."
KGUN9 reporter Craig Smith asked Stuart: "But the feeling was, here's a need, meet the need, we'll take care of you? Was that the understanding?"
Stuart said, "I think it was our initial understanding but obviously we know the state operates within a budget so we do know that it may be there's only a specific amount of service they're going to be able to fund and part of the conversation we were having with them is where does this leave us in terms of the services we're providing.">
Stuart warned CPS that at this rate she'd have to lay off part of her staff and reduce services.
But Stuart's warning was not news to CPS. The documents show, days earlier, Flora Sotomayor---CPS's top boss in Pima County got some bad news from a contract administrator: before increasing CURO payments CPS would have to cut 30 to 35 million dollars elsewhere.
Sotomayor responds, "...while we need the service, we do not have sufficient funding to increase to a viable level."
But while administrators were warning each other of the impending crisis. Bob Heslinga of Aviva says CPS gave him and his colleagues a different message.
Craig Smith asked him: "Was there a point where some leaders in CPS are saying, keep serving these families and other people are saying, hang on, where's the money?"
Heslinga: "That was early on, I think it was in like, October or November and we were strongly encouraged by the acting program manager to just keep doing the business now and somebody said, well, wait a minute our CURO doesn't allow for that and the acting program manager said, don't worry about it, just do it and the money will be forthcoming."
But CPS did not keep that promise and by December 5th Aviva and other providers were ending services and handing out walking papers.
But nine days later after 9 On Your Side began asking questions... CPS changed course again.
It told providers by letter the cutoff was a "misunderstanding" and promised to restore the money.
Now life is returning to normal for Stuart, Heslinga, and the families their agencies serve.
Heslinga can only hope that CPS has learned something.
"Like how many times do I have to put my hand in a fire to learn that's not a smart thing to do? That's going to affect my personal culture. So I'm gonna learn and I'm hoping that DES will corporately learn, gee, we didn't handle that real well so let's make sure we never do that again."
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Here's the 9 on your side bottom line; and we can't say it more plainly than this: in this case the people you pay and trust to do their jobs---didn't.
Then, when the you-know-what hit the fan, they let you down again; hiding from cameras and questions.
The man in charge, DES director Clarence Carter, had his gatekeepers inform us that he will not be available to answer our questions. Ever. Period. The end.
Sorry, but in our democracy that response is just not good enough.
This is an incredibly powerful public agency.
You deserve more from its leaders.
If you have an opinion on this issue a good person to call would be Carter's boss: Governor Jan Brewer.
Her number during regular business hours is (602) 542-4331.
You can e-mail her at this link.
Or write to:
The Honorable Janice K. Brewer
1700 West Washington Street
Phoenix, AZ 85007