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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dana Wolfe Naimark lobbies for Arizona’s kids

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Dana Wolfe Naimark is the president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

In 1988, a group of community leaders founded Children’s Action Alliance to be a voice for children and families at the Arizona State Capitol. As “power brokers for kids,” CAA provides in-depth, non-partisan research to lawmakers on tough issues: child abuse and neglect, juvenile justice, poverty, childcare and healthcare.

Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO, talks about advocating for Arizona’s youngest citizens.

How does CAA stand up for children in Arizona?

We lobby the state legislature, the governor and our state agencies to put in place good policies and good budgets that help children and families. But really, most of our work takes place in the community with many community partners, because that’s where we identify the problems, trends, barriers, successes—what’s working well and needs to expand and what we need to do. That’s also where people come together to support action steps. Then we try to bring it to fruition at the legislature or at the Capitol.

What led to your own interest in advocating for young children?

I think it was an evolution. My first job in Arizona was as a budget analyst for the state legislature. It was a fabulous job—I had a great boss, great colleagues. I learned a ton about the legislature, state government, how the money comes in and is spent. But it wasn’t mission-driven enough for me. I came to the conclusion that what we did for and with children would matter more than anything else we did as citizens, because it determines our future.

You began working with Children’s Action Alliance as a budget and tax expert shortly after your first son was born. Did being the mother of a young child influence your work?

I could tell right away, when I had the baby, how vulnerable any new parent is. You realize how crucial your need for support is and what you can do for your child. And so it did really have an impact on me that all children should have those opportunities. It shouldn’t just be a small percentage.

Last November, the Arizona Department of Economic Security revealed that thousands of reports on potential child abuse went uninvestigated by Child Protective Services (CPS). What has CAA done to help improve that situation?

Our role was to bring people together, to keep the discussion very constructive and forward thinking. We knew that it was important to engage the community. We began planning, from scratch, a community forum. More than 400 people attended: foster parents, adoptive parents, concerned neighbors, citizens, social workers, current and former CPS staff, the media and people working with different community organizations. We had three legislators there [who were] members of the CPS oversight committee. We came out with a list of fabulous ideas for how the community—and the state, not just CPS—can better protect children.

Why has it been so difficult for CPS to serve the needs of young children in Arizona?

We have very high poverty rates for children in our state. About one in four children lives in poverty at any one time in Arizona. That’s really compelling and difficult, because poverty is not just a dollar number; it can really shape the experience of children growing up. What does their neighborhood look like? How stable is their home life? Are they moving every two months when rent is due? How many times are they changing schools? How many hours are their parents away, taking three buses to get to two different jobs? How safe is their neighborhood? Do they have their own doctor? All of those things are linked to poverty and really make a huge impact on children’s lives. Forever. So that is part of the challenge in Arizona.

What are you most proud of in your work with CAA?

Well, I think what keeps me going is having wonderful, amazing partners all around the state who are passionate, who are working hard at what their particular niche is and who know that together, we can accomplish a lot. No two days are alike—every day is an adventure. I still learn something new every day. And then, obviously, knowing that we’re making a difference in the wellbeing of the whole state is very fulfilling and rewarding.

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Three flaws in the system that continue to make it tough for the children of Arizona, and a few concrete ways voters can make a difference in children’s lives in the future.

Listen to our podcast.

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Vicki Louk Balint

Multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint specializes in health and safety topics.

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