Six months after a huge public outcry about children sleeping in the Arizona Department of Child Safety’s Phoenix offices inspired the agency to open a 24-hour emergency-placement center, the department announced that the facility will close — and that some kids in state care probably will have to sleep in offices again.
In an e-mail to New Times, DCS spokesman Doug Nick writes that the center — which, to be clear, was just an office space in an office building — was never intended to be a permanent solution:
“In May 2015, DCS began a pilot project in which removed children would await placement at a secure Phoenix location. As announced in May, this pilot was intended to conclude on February 29, 2016. There has been no change to that plan, and the project will operate through that date.”
But while DCS says the center was a success and helped teach the department how it can be more efficient about placing children in foster care in the future, leaders in the child-advocacy world say this entire situation and the way it’s been handled highlights one of DCS’ biggest problems: a misguided belief that increasing the number of foster care homes will solve the overburdened agency’s problems.
When the center opened in June, DCS Director Greg McKay called the need for such a place “acute" because “it’s tragic that some children must be temporarily housed in offices while they await placement for foster care."
He added that it's “DCS’ responsibility to provide a safer environment [for kids] than the one they come from” and said “this center will help . . . accomplish that goal and have these children placed within 24 hours.”
“More foster care is not a solution for kids or families [and] it’s not good practice,” says Beth Rosenberg, director of Child Welfare & Juvenile Justice at Children's Action Alliance. “It’s traumatic to bring kids into foster care, whether it’s for a day or six months or a year.”
Rosenberg, like others, says that more focus and resources need to be put on preventing the types of scenarios that cause kids to be removed, particularly as the number of children in state care hovers around 19,000.
“Our concern is that with all of the children in foster care, they continue to bring kids into care [despite knowing that] there are in-home services and supports that could keep those kids at home safely,” Rosenberg says.
“There’s no action that the department is making or taking to provide those in-home services, and in [Governor Doug Ducey’s most recent] budget proposal, they’re taking funding away from services to support foster care.”
Becky Ruffner, Prevent Child Abuse Arizona director, agrees: “We have to [work] upstream of the problem because we can’t afford to spend all of the time and resources downstream . . . We’ve never had enough foster parents and homes,” she adds, and given the status quo, the supply will never catch up with the demand.
Many child advocates had been complaining about the number of children sleeping in DCS offices for years and initially were excited when they heard the center was opening, but it appears that optimism has faded quickly.
“When the emergency placement center opened, it was very pretty and well decorated,” Rosenberg says, “but in terms of operations, it never met licensing standards for a child care center or group home.”
The center opened as a last-resort place for case workers to take children who couldn’t immediately be placed in foster care, but multiple DCS employees and volunteers have told New Times that it served as more of a first resort for overburdened, overworked case managers who need to drop off kids there because they have no other choice.
Records obtained by New Times show that during the months of June and July 2015, anywhere between three and 22 children were checked into the center on a given day. It accommodated between 10 to 12 children most nights.
New Times also has spoken with multiple DCS employees and volunteers at the placement center who have complained about unsanitary conditions in the space, that there aren't enough volunteers to prevent physical fights between kids, and the loophole they feel DCS exploits to get around having a proper license.
Technically, as per the center’s lease with the city of Phoenix, no child is supposed to spend more than one night at the center: “This facility will not be construed as a shelter. DCS will allow no more than 23 hours to facilitate placement in a foster or group home,” the contract states.
However, multiple sources say that volunteers and staff are instructed to sign children out of the center after 23 hours, take them to get fast food, and then sign them back into the center for another night.
Still, even with all the problems at the emergency placement center, advocates say, having kids sleep there is probably a better situation than placing them in a DCS office.
“My understanding is that they’re going back to the office they were in before the center opened,” Rosenberg says, and it “doesn’t have the facilities or equipment that is sufficient for kids. It doesn’t have a real kitchen to cook food, it doesn’t have the staffing . . . and the sanitary conditions aren’t ideal.”
But even though the lease for the placement center is ending and the prospect of housing children in the office is not anyone's first choice, DCS is adamant that the department is not back to square one.
“It’s really easy to sit there and say DCS has gone back to an old system, but we’re not. The old system didn’t have the same number of emergency-placement centers and connections with emergency placement staff,” Nick says.
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In the past few months, “DCS made an unprecedented commitment to increase the number of staff who specialize in emergency placements,” and these new staff members will remain centralized but will “transition to an existing DCS office once the pilot is concluded,” he says.
Meaning that if everything goes according to plan, children removed from their homes will be placed in foster care or kinship care faster and more efficiently, and none will need to spend the night in a DCS office.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen.