Arizona’s promise to stop relying heavily on shelters and group homes for foster children has so far been an empty pledge.

Nearly 30 percent of the children removed from their homes between July and September were taken to an emergency shelter or group setting, not a foster home, data from the state’s Child Safety Oversight Committee shows. That compares with about 19 percent in late 2013 and a nationwide rate of about 14 percent.

The difference between group settings and a regular home was significant for Alex, 16, a Tucson student who was adopted by his foster mother, B.J. Martin, in November. It’s been nearly two years since Alex transitioned back to Tucson after living in group homes in Maricopa County. He’s glad those days are behind him.

“I was in two group homes around Phoenix because there was no room down here,” he said, explaining the Department of Child Safety removed him from his family’s home here when he was 11.

“It was really cramped,” he said of his first stay. “There were a lot of people in there, and there were a lot of fights and thefts.”

Alex was frightened at times and also felt discouraged by some staff members he says picked favorites. He says he longed for privacy and security.

“I really wanted to get into a foster home,” he said. “I thought it would be a lot better setting for me, more stable and more structured.”

Between April and September 2015, 19 infants and 158 children 5 and younger were in a shelter or group home for more than 21 days, data from the state’s Department of Child Safety show. That number rose to 227 for children ages 6 to 12, and peaked for teens at 434.

Starting in April, as part of a federal improvement plan, Arizona will do more intensive interventions for children staying in group settings, said Katherine Guffey, the chief quality improvement officer for DCS. This will include increasing efforts to find placements with relatives when foster homes are not available, as well as using in-home services more often to help stabilize the child’s family.

Avoiding the overuse of group care is critical not only for children, but also for the state’s beleaguered child welfare system, which has been granted flexibility with how it spends its federal foster-care funds based on getting children out of group settings. Arizona was one of 27 states to receive the waiver between 2012 and 2014.

Children should be placed in group settings only for specialized needs, such as behavioral and mental health, federal guidelines say, and should be used only until a child is stabilized and can return to a family-like setting. For young children, particularly those 12 and under, it is particularly important that they live in family-like settings.

Charles Flanagan, the former DCS director, obtained the waiver in October 2014 and planned to focus on improving access to services that allow children to stay home while the family gets help, as well as recruiting more foster families. Flanagan was replaced by Greg McKay one year ago this month.

During the last year, as the number of children in out-of-home care has increased from just under 17,000 to around 19,000, the reliance on group care also jumped.

“We are aware of the struggles Arizona is facing in terms of the increase of children in foster care, and particularly congregate care,” said Patrick Fisher, a public-affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. Fisher said his agency is continuing to work with Arizona to correct the problem.

Many states are already doing better. Nationwide, children in congregate care comprised 18 percent of the foster-care population in 2004 and 14 percent in 2013, federal data show.

Guffey said while many children do have their first placement in congregate care, many also leave quickly for a foster home or placement with a relative.

“Our goal, ideally, is to have children have only one placement in out-of-home care,” she said.

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or pmachelor@tucson.com