The Kids are Not All Right

2015 Was a Rough Year for Kids in Arizona's Child Welfare System

2015 has not been a good year for Arizona’s most-vulnerable population: kids in the child welfare system.

In early February, without much explanation, newly appointed Governor Doug Ducey fired Charles Flanagan, director of Arizona's Department of Child Safety, and in his place, installed Greg McKay, a police officer who headed the Office of Child Welfare Investigations —the law enforcement arm of the DCS.

It’s not unusual for a new governor to make leadership changes at the top of agencies, but McKay's appointment was controversial. He was seen widely as unqualified for the position and many worried that his law enforcement background would be a bad fit for a child welfare agency.

Ducey and McKay shrugged off any criticism, and promised that this leadership change was exactly what the department needed.

At the time, the DCS was still a new agency, having only been created a few months earlier because the previous child welfare agency, Child Protective Services, essentially imploded in the wake of a scandal about thousands of un-investigated reports of child abuse and neglect.

After the so-called "not investigated" or "NI" scandal came to light, former governor Jan Brewer dissolved CPS in January 2014, and with the state Legislature’s approval, created the DCS and put Flanagan in charge.

As New Times wrote in a cover story earlier this year, Flanagan was making positive strides. Under his leadership, the DCS tackled the un-investigated cases, fixed problems with its child abuse hotline, increased staffing, and began the process of replacing an outdated computer system. 

Employees who spoke with New Times described Flanagan as approachable, and consistently said that for the first time in years, morale at the agency was on the upswing.

Hence, it was a big surprise when Ducey replaced Flanagan.

One of McKay's first goals was to fix the backlog of "inactive" cases — open cases that haven't been touched in the computer system for 60 days — which had grown to include more than 13,000, and which he had said Flanagan did a poor job handling.

But during the first few months of McKay’s tenure, he fired or demoted many employees — including some who had been at the agency for decades – and dozens of others quit or requested to be transferred to a different state agency.

McKay described the turnover as typical institutional growing pains, though some speculate it had a lot more to do with the so-called “culture of fear” many say he created at the agency. 

At legislative Child Safety Oversight Committee meetings, McKay assured the room that things were getting better: he said he had plans to hire and train new staff, to fix the agency’s antiquated computer system and to create a better foster care experience for children and families.

The committee repeatedly expressed frustration with the lack of data and hard statistics by which improvement could be measured – an issue not helped by the fact that under McKay, the DCS has submitted regular progress reports months after they were due.

The Editorial Board of the Arizona Republic took the bold step recently of calling for McKay’s resignation, though a handful of state legislators shot back and said McKay deserves “a fair chance” and more time.

(To be fair, the DCS was far from flawless when McKay took over, and everyone agrees it’s unrealistic to expect all of the agency’s troubles and challenges to be solved within a year. It’s also unclear whether more knee-jerk reactions would help or hinder the DCS.)
But, the big question – perhaps the only question – is whether children in Arizona are faring better than they were before.

Given the following list of five things that didn’t happen at the DCS during 2015, it’s a little hard to say that the kid are all right.

5. The number of backlogged cases didn't go down.
In fact, it increased from about 13,000 to almost 15,000 since McKay took over.

4. Because of the 33 percent staff turnover rate, the DCS didn’t meet its employment goals.
Staff turnover rate was about 26 percent at the end of 2014.

3. The DCS' antiquated computer system, CHILDS, wasn't updated or fixed.
According to Michael Dellner, deputy director of operations, the first round of changes won’t take effect until 2018.

2. The DCS didn’t please or gain the trust of state lawmakers.
The agency got an “unfavorable” review, akin to a failing review, at the most recent Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

1. The number of kids in state care has gone up, not down.
There are 19,000 kids in state care, as opposed to 16,000 last January.
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser