The Kids are Not All Right

Independent Report Says Arizona's Child Welfare System Isn't Working

The Arizona Office of the Auditor General recently published what may become a landmark study of Arizona's child welfare system. The 73-page document paints a picture of an agency struggling even after it was removed from the larger umbrella of the Department of Economic Security last year and transformed into a stand-alone department with a direct channel to the governor.

As part of the legislation authorizing this new agency, the Department of Child Safety, the OAG was required to hire a third-party group with expertise in child welfare to write “an independent report focused on the implementation challenges facing the new department.” The OAG chose Chapin Hall (affiliated with the University of Chicago), and the Legislature appropriated the $239,807 to complete it.

The results of the months-long study “basically describes an agency that has gone out of control,” says state Representative Debbie McCune Davis, who sits on the legislative Child Safety Oversight Committee. “It identifies risks within the agency and describes the process by which the agency [got into the mess it's currently in, [and it] reaffirms much of what I had concluded in the past.” she adds.

Chapin Hall set out to understand why DCS started spiraling out of control six years ago, and how that caused the number of children in the system to swell to unprecedented levels. And while the report could hardly be described as an easy or entertaining read, the main point it makes is that DCS' problems are the product of “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.”

These external problems are exacerbated by flaws within the agency's structure and culture, as well as its chronic underemployment and high turnover rate. And the problem is made even worse, says the report, by bottle-necked court systems and overworked attorneys and judges.

Beth Rosenberg, Director of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice for the Children's Action Alliance, says that while the report “pointed out many things that we have known about for a longtime,” it was valuable insofar as it “set a framework for looking at areas that are of concern . . . [and] looking at larger systems and what needs to change.”

She adds that she and others in her organization acknowledge that there's no quick fix to the myriad problems at DCS, but still “would have preferred to have a little more detail”—specific detail about what [DCS] needs to do and by [what date].”

Joe Jacober, who sits on the legislative Child Safety Oversight Committee and has been a foster parent for 14 years, says "the recommendations in the report were vague and ambiguous. There is nothing in the report that provides a clear path for DCS leadership to act upon. There are not specific, implementable action items to draw upon nor clear metrics to measure their progress against.

"What would have been helpful would have been a recommendation that included key steps, metrics to account for progress and a timeframe from which if followed, these steps would product favorable outcomes. Even something as simple as “follow these three steps and you will have 3,000 less children in care in 18 months”. Where is that report?

"Instead, we got another report from bureaucrats who specialize in pontificating and not doing the hard work of building, executing, measuring and being accountable for their actions. The report is accurate and they did a commendable job of interviewing and gathering feedback, but there is nothing new. We need a roadmap to future success, not a story we can tell about our past failings."

“There isn't a magic pill for making the child welfare system work,” explains Fred Wulczyn, the principle investigator for the Chapin Hall team. “We identify a set of specific things the state should do [but overall] tried to identify areas that, in our experience, there are certain basic functions people need to implement to get the full system working properly.”

The report identified eight areas where DCS needs to either make big changes or enforce protocols it already has in place. And though problems were identified at all stages of the system, the authors pointed out that DCS devotes a disproportionate amount of attention to what's called the front-door end of the system: investigations and foster care placement. Critics of the current DCS leadership team agree, telling New Times that the agency is too focused on busting child abusers and removing kids from homes, and does so without paying attention to what happens to the kids once they're in the system. (They add that Governor Doug Ducey has a similar focus when it comes to child welfare.)

DCS Director Greg McKay responded to the report's eight recommendations, detailing the ways in which DCS is already doing those things — fixing assessment tools, addressing the backlog of cases, reinstating family support programs, etc.

New Times asked DCS if there were any specific recommendations in the report that the department was not already undertaking or implementing, but the department declined to comment beyond what was stated in McKay's response. (New Times also reached out to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who has been intimately involved with child welfare and sits on the oversight committee, but he declined to comment as well.)

Overall, perhaps the most sobering reminder of the task ahead is the sheer fact that there are 17,000-plus children currently in the Arizona child welfare system who need permanency — 44 percent more than in 2009.

“The volume of cases now in the custody of the department creates capacity challenges,” the report states, “[and] the work associated with serving these cases must continue while new strategies are implemented to address their needs and improve front-door processes."

Editor's Note: this story has been updated from its original version.

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser