By David Schwartz
PHOENIX, May 29 (Reuters) - Arizona lawmakers created a new child-welfare agency in a special session on Thursday, providing an extra $60 million to improve a scandal-ridden system that last year was found to have ignored nearly 6,600 reports of abuse and neglect.
Legislators from the state Senate and House of Representatives approved two bills to transform the beleaguered existing agency into a cabinet-level organization, bolstered by additional caseworkers and investigators, to focus on child safety.
"This legislation lays the foundation for a new agency dedicated to keeping children safe," said Representative Kate Brophy McGee, a Republican who worked on the bills. "But it is only the foundation ... This will not be fixed overnight."
Speaking on the House floor, McGee spoke directly to the state's children. "We are finally here for you," she said.
The measures now go to Republican Governor Jan Brewer, who called lawmakers into session last week to focus on rebuilding the state's child welfare system after officials discovered last November that thousands of hotline calls reporting abuse and neglect were never investigated.
Brewer, who sat alongside the speaker of the House as legislators debated and approved the final bill, will sign it into law in a ceremony later on Thursday.
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 and Gunna Dickson)
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