12 Explanations for Arizona’s Child-Welfare Problems

A new report on child welfare in Arizona reveals some startling statistics that help explain why the state’s child-welfare system is overwhelmed and why an unprecedented number of children are in foster care or group homes. This report, technically a supplement to the independent audit conducted by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall and released late last month, tells much of the same story, but it highlights a few key areas where state programs fell — and continue to fall — short, or where institutional priorities may be misdirected.

The initial report was commissioned in 2014, after former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer removed Child Protective Services from under the umbrella of the Department of Economic Security, and created a new cabinet level child welfare agency, the Department of Child Safety. As part of the legislation authorizing DCS, the Office of the Auditor General was required to hire child welfare experts to produce “an independent report focused on the implementation challenges facing the new department.”

This new supplemental report, which is far shorter and less redundant, details some of the state’s systematic and institutional problems more specifically – problems the original report called “a perfect storm comprised of economic uncertainty triggered by the recession that started in 2007, rising demand for the services needed by families, and shrinking service capacity in the face of rising demand.”

Here are highlights:

12. Since the 2008-2009 recession hit, Arizona has experienced an explosion in the number of reports about child neglect.

(However, according to this report, in the few years prior to the economic downturn, the number of reports had been dropping, making that the sudden increase look considerably more dramatic.)

11. Between 2007 and 2014, substantiation rates increased by 81 percent in Maricopa and 51 percent in other parts of Arizona.

("Changes in the number of accepted reports of the magnitude observed in Arizona place significant strain on the child welfare system. When coupled with changes in the proportion of accepted reports that go on to become substantiated cases of maltreatment, the strain is even greater," states the report.) 

10. While national trends show a decrease in abuse and neglect reports, Arizona's trends "reveal a sharp increase in the number of neglect victims" since the 2009 economic downturn. 

9. The proportion of reports accepted by DCS has greatly outpaced the number of employees available to handle them

There are many reasons why the number of children in the child welfare system has grown dramatically, but the report points to three factors that have been particularly influential:

8. Increases in the number of children living in Arizona

7. Increases in the number of children living in poverty in the state

6. Cut backs in child care and other subsidies that led to fewer families being served.

5. While Arizona actually substantiates fewer neglect reports than many other states, it places more children from the pool of substantiated cases in out-of-home care.

(In fact, the Chapin Hall report says, "the rate of placement in Arizona is substantially higher than it is in all of the other states but one." The authors of the report adjusted for poverty levels so as "to account for the link between socioeconomic wellbeing and the need for placement.")

4. In general, after children are removed from their families, a DCS’ goal is either reunification or adoption. And according to this report, “the cumulative rate of reunification is about 80 percent lower in Arizona” than it is in comparable states, meaning kids spend more time in foster care.

3. And then “for adoption, the narrative flips. Children in Arizona are much more likely to be adopted than children in other states.”

2. Arizona has more kids in out of home care than ever before, and spends a greater percentage of its overall budget on financing foster home and group home care.

(Chapin Hall found that the cost associated with that “in 2014 were about 60 percent greater than the total child protection budget just 10 years” earlier. As a result, “the state has less flexibility to invest in other parts of the system. However, underinvestment in in-home services and prevention will likely perpetuate the state’s tendency to serve more children away from their parents.” )

1. There is a tremendous amount of variation from county to county in the percentage of reports that result in a removal.

(The report points out that “one also has to ask whether these differences reflect real differences in the situations facing Arizona families that are county-based or whether this variability speaks to how child protection works at the local level." Although "in terms of strategic direction, this local variation is what should attract the attention of policy makers and other stakeholders.”)

Read the full supplemental report below: 
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser