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Arizona to set up child welfare agency after abuse scandal

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed legislation on Thursday to create a new child-welfare agency, providing $60 million in additional funding to improve a scandal-ridden system that was found last year to have ignored nearly 6,600 reports of abuse and neglect.

Brewer, a Republican, signed two bills that are meant to transform the existing child welfare agency into a cabinet-level organization to focus on child safety, bolstered by additional caseworkers and investigators.

“With this historic legislation, we begin to reverse a long-standing crisis and implement long-lasting change,” Brewer said in a statement. “Finally, Arizona will have a child safety system with the capability and culture to protect our children.”

Lawmakers from the state Senate and House of Representatives approved the legislation earlier in the day in a special session. Backers said the changes could not have come too soon.

    Speaking on the House floor, Representative Kate Brophy McGee, a Republican who worked on the bills, spoke directly to the state’s children. “We are finally here for you,” she said.

Brewer called lawmakers into session last week to focus on rebuilding the child-welfare system after officials discovered last November that thousands of hotline calls reporting abuse and neglect had never been investigated.

    Prior to Thursday's action, officials launched two separate investigations that resulted in policy changes and the appointment of a new director to oversee the agency.

    Last month, the investigations led to the firing of five top managers and a supervisor. The managers complained they were being made scapegoats for the child welfare crisis.

     The final legislation mirrors a proposal from the governor last week that includes ways to reduce a backlog of about 15,000 cases and calls for improved transparency and accountability.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Gunna Dickson and Leslie Adler)

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