The report from the Arizona Auditor General’s Office tells stories of foster parents over the past several years who didn’t receive basic information from the Department of Child Safety about children assigned to them.
One foster parent said DCS provided not only the wrong prescription information for a child, but also the wrong age.
Another said the department’s failure to provide information about a child’s allergies caused the child to be exposed to an allergen and go into anaphylactic shock.
In Arizona, licensed foster parents take over parental rights for children on a temporary basis when the state has determined the biological parents can't safely take care of their own children.
When the state Auditor General’s Office did its own assessment of six information packets given to foster parents about children in their care, it found several instances of missing information that the department had access to and could have provided.
An Arizona law known as Jacob’s Law requires DCS to give caregivers in foster or group homes an “updated and complete placement packet,” the report said. A blank placement packet provided on the department's website includes space for things like medical conditions, a child's personal items, and routines that make the child feel at home.
But both this audit’s findings and input from advocacy groups suggest the law may not be enforced. Kris Jacober, executive director of the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, was a foster parent for 15 years. She said that in that time, she never received an information packet of any kind.
“I haven’t been licensed for two years. Maybe there’s been a huge turnaround in the availability of placement packets and the completeness of placement packets,” Jacober said. “But from what the audit is saying, it doesn’t seem like that’s true.”
Without placement packets, Jacober said, learning about the children in her care became a “learn by doing” system. She met with biological families when she could, and observed her foster children to figure out what worked and didn’t work. But that meant there were often surprises — for instance, she recalled, she was once told she would be receiving a male child, but the child was female.
Monday’s audit also indicated a need for DCS to improve its customer service. Foster parents interviewed said they had trouble reaching the department, couldn’t get calls returned, or didn’t know how to navigate the system of getting financial or medical support for the children in their households. In some cases, the parents said, such bureaucratic challenges led them to end their care for certain children.
Some foster parents also said department caseworkers notified them last-minute about decisions to move children, which they said was traumatic for both the children and families. One foster mother learned via text message from a department caseworker that a boy in her care for two years would be moved the following day.
The audit had some good news for the department, noting that it had followed recommended recruitment practices for foster families and used licensing standards that were “generally consistent with model standards.” It commended the department for its use of data to estimate its need for more foster families and homes.
But when inspecting the contract agencies that are supposed to help prospective foster parents go through the licensing process, it found there were barriers for those people to get licensed. Many contract agencies had “busy phone lines and full voicemail boxes,” the report said. Others didn’t cater to Spanish-speaking families, despite that service being required. In a review of 10 contractor websites, only two had the required Spanish-language assistance.
Those issues could deter potential foster parents who aren’t sure how to get licensed at a time when more foster parents are badly needed in Arizona, Jacober said. As the audit indicates, more foster homes are needed in the state for “teenagers, large sibling groups and children with special health care needs, and to better match the ethnic/racial diversity of children in care.”
The department issued a response to the audit on Friday agreeing with its findings and committing to following the report’s recommendations, which include providing foster parents with full information packets, collecting better data to improve customer service and increasing Spanish-language offerings.
There are more than 13,000 children in Arizona’s child welfare system, according to an August DCS report. Recruiting and retaining foster parents has been a persistent problem in the state, Jacober said.
“I sat on a committee when Governor Napolitano was governor to increase recruitment and retention of foster parents,” Jacober said. “And it’s just frustrating that all these many years later, it is still a challenge.”
Representatives for the Department of Child Safety didn’t return calls on Tuesday.