A lawsuit filed on behalf of Arizona children in foster care makes the argument that the system is so disorganized, dysfunctional and bereft of basic ability that it harms the abused and neglected children it is supposed to protect.
We’re unfortunately familiar with the large-scale failures of Arizona’s child welfare system. But this detail from the experience of an 8-year-old named Jack M., as explained in the lawsuit filed by Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Children’s Rights, Inc., illustrates how eroded the system is from the inside: Jack entered foster care in May 2012 and he’d had three placements before ending up in a relative’s care that July. The state never made sure he had transportation to school. He missed 60 days of first grade.
This is the latest chapter in the long and painful history of child welfare work in Arizona. Reports and accounts of the institutional failings go back more than a decade. The shortcomings, and the resulting harm to vulnerable children, are well known.
Arizona has roughly 17,000 kids living in foster care, and the department currently has approximately 25,000 open reports in the Investigations Bureau and approximately 18,500 cases open for services in the Ongoing Bureau, according to Jennifer Bowser, spokeswoman for the Department of Child Safety.
Changes have been made, yes, and often in response to the preventable death or harming of a child who was known to the state’s child welfare agency. The interest flares up, maybe some personnel changes are made, funding might be allocated, but that’s as far as it goes.
This cycle must stop. Perhaps this lawsuit, with its infuriating and tragic details of multiple children’s terrible experiences in state custody, will be the kick necessary to gut the system and rebuild it in a way that works for the children its charged to protect.
Unstable living conditions, failure to get urgently needed mental health evaluations and counseling, separating siblings, failure to arrange transportation to appointments and family visits, and lack of medical and dental care are only some of the problems outlined.
The details in the lawsuit are heartbreaking. Again and again, children who have been neglected or abused in their own home, are placed in foster care and, in the words of a boy named Bryce, who entered foster care in 2005 and is now 14, “I feel like I get tossed around like a bag of chips.”
We in the public would like to think that means a child who is in danger in his own home has been relocated to a safe, stable foster family. That’s not how it works.
In Bryce’s case, for example, he’s been moved more than 20 times from foster home to group home to a shelter to an adoptive home, back to foster care and group institutions. Included in there are two stops in juvenile corrections and two weeks in an acute mental health facility.
From the age of 6 Bryce had been repeatedly referred for psychological evaluations and counseling, but the visits were never scheduled, delayed for months or no placement in a therapeutic setting was available. He’s been diagnosed with PTSD.
His experience is not isolated. Attorneys are asking for class action status.
Arizona took steps to change the child welfare system last summer when the Child Protective Services office in the Department of Economic Security was scrapped and replaced with the cabinet-level Department of Child Safety. That change was sparked by the discovery of more than 6,000 uninvestigated reports of child abuse or neglect.
Bowser reports that the current goal is a workload per case manager of 13 investigations, 33 in-home cases or 20 out-of-home children. In October, 2014 the caseloads were 19 investigations, 54 in-home cases and 30 out-of-home children.
Gov. Doug Ducey has recommended directing $4 million toward preventive services at DCS, using money saved from reducing the backlog of cases — a change that doesn’t involve new money for child welfare.
Ducey also wants to increase the stipend paid for foster families who take in children ages 12-18 from $653 to $816 per month. This should help retain foster families, which is an ongoing problem for Arizona. The increase would be covered by having fewer children in congregant care, or group homes, which can cost $2,400 to $3,200 per month per child.
Shifting funding to improve family foster care makes sense, if it doesn’t come at the expense of another need, but it won’t solve the day-to-day structural problems outlined in the lawsuit. The Legislature, Ducey and Department of Child Safety shouldn’t wait for the court to act. The kids in need don’t have time to waste.