Arizona’s child welfare crisis is providing residents with a glimpse of something rarely seen from the agency charged with protecting kids in the state: transparency.
A group of investigators, called the CARE Team, updates an online site daily so the public can monitor progress on 6,554 previously ignored reports of possible child abuse or neglect.
The creation of the team and the site (at https://azcareteam.az.gov) began after the public learned thousands of reports had been pushed aside, violating the state requirement that every suspected case of abuse or neglect be investigated. Of those, 875 were in Pima County.
But once these cases are reviewed and this specific crisis has been abated, will the state continue its new spirit of openness?
Yes, says Charles Flanagan, who heads the new Division of Child Safety and Family Services, which has replaced Child Protective Services.
“In the past, for example, DES would not even acknowledge that there was an investigation, and here we are posting that there is an investigation and what the outcomes are,” he said, referring to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which used to oversee Child Protective Services.
Flanagan said he intends to keep a similar site going.
“It is my intent to continue to push the envelope,” he said, referring to federal guidelines for child welfare agencies. “The public has the right to know what we’re doing.”
Since Tucson toddler Za’Naya Flores’ death from starvation nearly two years ago, three more Pima County children with open or recently closed CPS cases have died, and three others nearly died.
For more than three months, DES has failed to provide public records on the cases, such as how many cases the workers assigned to those children were simultaneously trying to balance, or whether anyone was disciplined or fired as a result.
It is unclear how long public records related to child welfare will continue to be handled by the DES, or how long the state agency will provide, as it has since laws changed in 2008, the names of children who died or nearly died, as well as the names of their alleged abusers. (Find the list at https://www.azdes.gov/landing.aspx?id=9485).
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s decision to create a new agency is an unprecedented step toward change, Flanagan said. “That momentum is helping to identify many of the things that have to happen legislatively.”
By the end of the month, Flanagan said recommendations will be passed along to the governor on how to create a more efficient child welfare agency.
The more open officials stay throughout the process, the better, said Benjamin DeHaan, executive director of Partners for Our Children at the University of Washington-Seattle and former deputy administrator of Oregon’s Children’s Services Division.
“I certainly urge the leadership of the Arizona system to get as much information out there as possible,” DeHaan said. “They have the authority and the latitude to share much more than they do. Confidentiality statutes are often misunderstood — the sharing of information by most of these state agencies is too constrained.”
DeHaan is director of Partners for Our Children, which was founded in 2007. The organization’s portal (at http://partnersforourchildren.org/data-portal) provides data on investigations and assessments, in-home services and out-of-home care for families in Washington state. People can search by county.
More broadly, he said, the organization’s goal is to inspire positive change in child welfare practices by sharing researched evidence and data.
“Our job is to actually improve outcomes for children in the child welfare system,” he said. Child welfare services, he said, “should be driven by the needs of families, not by the needs of the agencies that deliver them.”
DeHaan’s other suggestions for Arizona:
- The governor should convene a review panel of professionals who have the authority to access all necessary information related to child welfare. The panel would develop a work plan that sets specific, measurable goals and the governor would work with Legislature to change state laws where necessary and to secure adequate funding. This would take at least five years, he said.
- Arizona should develop a competency-based training curriculum in partnership with its public universities. This will expand federal training resources, he said.
- The state should ensure social workers have manageable workloads, adequate supervision and access to new technology in order to free up direct service time.
“Approaches to protecting children should be based upon evidence and information about how the agency operates should be shared freely with the public,” he said.
“Large public agencies do not always self-correct and often they need to be shaped by outside forces, such as outside constituencies, legal intervention or advocacy groups.”
Before the current crisis, Arizona’s child welfare workers already were struggling to manage overwhelming caseloads, and CPS was leaning toward a model called differential response to help.
With differential response, reports are assessed and those that include sexual or physical abuse, for example, are assigned to caseworkers for full investigation.
In turn, low-risk families are referred instead to community agencies that provide support services.
Arizona used this approach until 2003 when the Legislature required that every report be investigated.
Flanagan is skeptical of differential response because, he said, it is “not an evidence-based practice.” And while he agrees keeping families together should be the first priority, he said it is critical to find better ways to assess and ensure a child’s safety in the home.
“I’m going to scrutinize it closely, and I’m not sure if we’ll use that,” he said. “If that means we’re not going to investigate something fully, we’re not going to do it.”
Keeping things balanced can be difficult, said Rob Ameln, who worked as the program manager for CPS in Tucson for 14 years before retiring in 2002.
With a record number of children in out-of-home care — 15,000 in the state and 5,000 in Pima County as of early December — CPS is removing children from their homes at the highest rate in the nation.
Yet in the last two years, at least 67 Arizona children died from maltreatment even though they were known to CPS. Some had open cases, and others had cases that had been recently closed, the state’s annual Child Fatality Review shows.
Ameln said approaches like differential response help workers focus on the cases where an investigation is needed, while giving families struggling with poverty and neglect issues, for example, the kind of attention they need without removing children.
People working in social service agencies can always refer a family back for investigation if they determine there is something more serious going on, he said.
“The reality is that CPS is always behind the curve on resources,” said Tim Schmaltz, recently retired executive director of Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition and previously the social services division director with DES. “We need resources to make this work.”
CPS has never received the support or services it merits as an agency of first responders, he said. Regardless of what approach the state takes, he said, strong management is critical.
“I don’t care if they are social workers, lawyers, family therapists, they must be people who have spent at least 10 years in the field,” he said.
“We’ve gotta be careful. A lot of these families are families struggling with poverty and addiction and homelessness. If you’re working and earning minimum wage and you’re struggling, it’s hard sometimes. We’ve got to have a balanced approach.”