No Place Like Home?

On November 12 last year, it became official: Arizona is not safe for children.

In a report released that day by the state auditor general, the Department of Economic Security is found to be failing the abused or neglected children it's supposed to protect. The report, "A Performance Audit of the Department of Economic Security, Division of Children, Youth and Families," contains statistics that show that things are so bad for the children of Arizona that thousands of children who have been abused by their families have been ignored by those charged with helping them.

On first consideration, you wouldn't think so. It would seem that abused or neglected children and their friends know who to call. The state's child-abuse hotline received 55,645 calls last year. But the DES' Division of Children, Youth and Families is so understaffed that it was only able to investigate 84 percent of those cases; a total of 5,900 went uninvestigated. That is a huge increase over the previous year. In 1996, only about 1,500 cases had gone uninvestigated.

But it gets worse. In Maricopa County, nearly 40 percent of the investigations that did take place were not initiated in the required response time. Some investigations were poorly documented, some cases were left open for long periods when no more investigation was needed, and only about 40 percent of investigated cases were reviewed by a supervisor before being closed. Six percent of the case files were missing, so the auditor couldn't determine whether any investigations were performed in these cases.

In a letter to the auditor general's office, Linda Blessing, director of the DES, agreed with the report's findings.

The Child Protective Services' priority classification system is chilling. "Priority 3--Low Risk" cases of physical abuse are defined as "injuries not requiring medical treatment. For example, first-degree or cigarette burns, injury to buttocks or scalp, single or small bruises, etc. . . ."

So children being burned or beaten are considered to be at a low risk.
Does this sound as though the division is accomplishing its stated mission "to protect children, to ensure their ongoing safety, and to provide children in need and their families with an array of services that are accessible, appropriate, and which promote independence and self-sufficiency"?

When someone reports a suspected child abuse, this is how the procedure usually works: The division gets the call on the hotline and decides whether the situation needs to be investigated. If so, it then decides how quickly the investigation has to be started. There are four categories used to prioritize investigations, and the standard response time ranges from two hours for priority one reports to seven days for priority four reports. If the investigation shows that the child is in imminent danger of abuse or neglect, the child can be taken from the parents and placed in a group home, a facility where such children live together under supervision.

And, in that group home, the abuse and neglect may continue, says the report.

Group homes tend to be staffed by people who are undereducated and underpaid. And there is normally a staff shortage. Children commonly react to sexual abuse by acting out sexual behavior. And, if unsupervised, they'll act it out with each other.

People willing to speak on the record about group homes invariably ask not to be named, in order to protect the confidentiality of the children they work with.

Last November, a 5-year-old girl at Devereux in Scottsdale was heard by a witness to say that she and another girl had been "doing sex." The other girl is three years older, and bigger. The 5-year-old's roommate confirmed this, saying that she had walked into the room and seen the older child on top of the 5-year-old. The home's staff knew nothing about this until a volunteer pointed it out.

I called the volunteer, and she confirmed that the incident happened, but didn't blame Devereux. "The people at Devereux do take these things seriously, and follow up on anything that's reported."

So why didn't anyone there know about it until she reported it?
"The staff in group homes aren't given enough information on how to deal with so many children. There are too many children, and not enough staff. These are children who're going to act out, whether it's sexual abuse or just anger. They've been taken out of their homes. The staff need to be trained to deal with that."

This volunteer is reluctant to criticize group homes. "Enough isn't being done, but what's being done is better than nothing."

So what did Devereux do in the instance of the 5-year-old? "They were very positive. They rearranged the children, put them in different quarters," said the volunteer.

This is unsurprising; Devereux is one of the better group homes. It has a ratio of four or five children to every staff member. It aims to have room checks every 10 or 15 minutes. "But things do happen," concedes executive director Stephen Vitali. He was unable to talk about any specific incident, but said that in the case of the one I mentioned, the children involved would be separated and seen by a therapist.

Devereux's staff members are better qualified and better paid than most--they need a college degree or a combination of education and experience. But, even at this high end, they still only get paid from $8 to $10 an hour. "Most of them are kids out of college, getting ready to go to grad school," according to Vitali.

I spoke to the volunteer coordinator for the agency the volunteer is affiliated with. He said that the case of the 5-year-old had been satisfactorily resolved. But he agreed that, in most group homes, such problems must necessarily arise in an environment with too few staff members making too little money and with no training.

"All you need is a high school diploma to work in a group home," he told me. "Staff in these homes make between $5 and $7.50 an hour. How are you going to get qualified people for that? They should have to go through a training program. Children who've been sexually abused tend to become sexual predators or sexual victims. They have to be supervised."

He believes that the lack of quality child welfare, rather than being the fault of any one organization or group of organizations, reflects the lack of value our society places on its children.

"As far as child welfare goes, we're 42nd in the country. We don't respect our children. The problem lies with the community, with all of us."

A former group-home staffer tells me that staff morale is always low. "People work in these homes for these wages either because they're on the way to somewhere else or because they can't get anything better. I did it for a year, when I was a student."

Another tells a similar story. "It has a high burnout rate. So compassionate people who're very good at working directly with the residents tend to move on and get promoted into administrative positions, which they're not very good at."

The auditor general's report recommends that DES improve its oversight of group homes. But the report makes clear that lack of regulation is not all the fault of DES. "The legislature should consider strengthening the Division's current enforcement authority by providing it with the authority to impose civil penalties" on homes. But DES already has the power to suspend or revoke an agency's license, which it is reluctant to do because of the need for places where children can be safely housed. One agency was the subject of 14 child-abuse reports and more than 50 incident reports during 1996 alone, and still kept its license, though CPS stopped placing children there.

This agency or its specific group homes are not named in the report. DES did not return calls from me asking for details of this and other complaints.

"Taking children into custody is an extreme measure," a former group-home worker tells me. "You take them into custody because their situation at home is so dangerous. But these kids are damaged by what happened to them. They must be. And we're not doing anything to make them better. All we're doing is farming damaged children until they're old enough to leave."

Always assuming they're not ignored in the first place.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham