Fixing the Child Welfare "Horror Show" in Arizona (Letter to the Editor)

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With unprecedented numbers of children entering foster care in Arizona every day, there seems to be unanimous agreement among child-welfare advocates and experts that something in the state's system is broken. But what exactly that "something" is — and where it stems from — remains a topic of hot debate. In a letter to the editor, Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, explains why he believes Arizona's problem is a philosophy that "boils down to 'take the child and run.'"

To the editor:

One of the fundamental tenets of the family-preservation movement is that people can change. So it was heartening to read these comments from Beth Rosenberg of the Children’s Action Alliance (CAA) in a story in New Times about the ongoing horror show that is Arizona child welfare:

“More foster care is not a solution for kids or families [and] it’s not good practice…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.”

That’s quite a change for the better since the day I met Rosenberg in April, 2003.

A staunch conservative, former State Representative Laura Knaperek, had invited a tax-and-spend liberal – me – to speak at a meeting about the crisis engulfing the Arizona child-welfare system. I talked about the urgent need to stop the foster-care panic – the sharp spike in needless removal of children to foster care – already sweeping through the state.

After the meeting, Rosenberg stormed up to me and shouted about how much she disagreed: “It has become almost impossible to remove a child from the home in Arizona!” she declared. Even as she was shouting those words, removals since the panic began already had climbed by 18 percent over the same period the year before.

What Rosenberg says now is what Knaperek and I were trying to tell her back in 2003. It’s what New Times tried to explain in 2006. And it was the theme of my organization’s report on Arizona child welfare in 2007.

But the CAA thought it knew better.

The current crisis in Arizona child welfare did not start with the recession. It started in 2002, when in response to high-profile tragedies, what was then Child Protective Services adopted a policy that boiled down to “take the child and run.” But the foster-care panic really kicked into high gear as a result of a January, 2003 conference organized by the CAA.

The entire conference was a pep rally for child removal. One of the nation’s leading advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare was invited to be the keynote speaker. Another speaker, the newly inaugurated governor, Janet Napolitano, told caseworkers: “Err on the side of [removing] the child, and we’ll sort it out later.”

Thirteen years later, they still haven’t sorted it out.

Arizona now takes away children at a rate 50 percent above the national average – even when rates of child poverty are factored in. Anyone think Arizona children are 50 percent safer than the national average? The rate of removal in Arizona is more than double the rate in states where independent court monitors found that rebuilding systems to emphasize family preservation improved child safety.

Compare the rates of removal in America’s 10 largest cities and surrounding counties and guess which is number one – by a mile: Maricopa County. Again, after factoring in rates of child poverty, the rate of removal there is nearly four times the rate in New York City and nearly six times the rate of metropolitan Chicago. Anyone think Phoenix children are four times safer than New York City children? (Actually, there is one major metro area I know of, not big enough for the top 10, that’s even higher than Maricopa County: Pima County.)
The wreckage has reached the point where the debate has descended into whether to warehouse children in offices or in offices converted into a shelter.

It’s not just the children needlessly torn from everyone loving and familiar who suffer. All the time, money and effort spent needlessly tearing apart families is, in effect, stolen from children in real danger who really should be taken from their homes. That’s almost always the real reason for the horror stories that make headlines.

It is almost unbearable to contemplate how much suffering could have been avoided had the CAA gotten it right in 2003, and devoted that conference to a call to rebuild the Arizona system based on models pioneered in other states using safe, proven approaches to keeping families together.

But now that CAA has proven, once again, that people can change, I hope the organization will fight as hard to get children out of foster care as it did to get them in.

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
Office: (703) 212-2006
Cell: (703) 380-4252

Have something to say? Please send letters to the editor to Rick.Barrs@newtimes.com

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