Let your children go live with a relative or family friend for a while or risk the state taking more dire action.

That choice has been offered to some of Arizona’s parents and caregivers over the last two years when Arizona’s Department of Child Safety caseworkers suspect a child is in danger of harm.

The goal of these temporary removals, which the state calls voluntary, is to allow investigators time to assess how a family is functioning or if, for example, a child’s injury was from an accidental fall or from abuse.

The question that’s played out in courts in some other states is whether this is a good alternative to placing children in foster care or a violation of a parent’s fundamental rights.

Attorneys in Pennsylvania and Illinois say these arrangements, which Arizona calls “present-danger plans,” are unfair because parents and caregivers are being coerced into a child removal before anything has been determined or proven.

But Katherine Guffey, chief quality improvement officer for Arizona’s DCS, says parents who agree to these plans have the choice to decline and instead accept this as an alternative to traditional foster-care placements. The parents can end the plan at any time, she said.

Here’s how Guffey says it works: If a caseworker believes a child is at risk of harm, the parents are asked to agree to have their child or children go live with a relative or friend while an investigation is carried out. Other times, the child can stay home with one parent while the other parent stays elsewhere.

Guffey said present-danger plans are intended to foster a cooperative relationship between parents and caseworkers. In some instances, she said, the family crisis can be addressed quickly and the child or children are returned home without the opening of a formal case by state officials.

She said the parents are told that they have the right to an attorney and a court hearing, but can do this plan instead.

“We try to be very clear with parents that if you don’t feel comfortable, you can say no,” Guffey said. “If we determine the family is not interested in a voluntary plan, then we will need to take some (formal) action.”

If there is not a relative or friend who can help, the child is instead placed in temporary DCS custody and foster care, which requires court authorization and would be included when the state tallies child-removal numbers.

The arrangement is not supposed to last more than 14 days or, in some cases, up to 28 days if investigators need more time, she said.

In 2018, 702 Arizona children were removed under a present-danger plan, according to the most recent data available.

Of these children, 51 percent went on to be formally removed from the parents.

The other 49 percent returned home without additional DCS involvement — and with no time spent in foster care with strangers.

“Invisible cases”

The bottom line for Pennsylvania attorney Mark Freeman is this: It’s not possible to offer a voluntary child removal.

“When you threaten a parent to put their child in foster care with strangers, that’s not coercive?” he said of such child-safety plans, as they are also called. “The parents either have to comply or the child goes to foster care.”

Freeman said the cases he’s won in his state led to a new mandate: Child-welfare workers have to notify parents of their legal rights, including their right to a court hearing even if they picked the voluntary route, a practice Arizona already has in place.

Attorney Diane Redleaf of Illinois has also sued over the removals practice and won a class-action suit that found requiring parents to have their children go live with a relative was not lawful “without some factual basis.”

But that victory was not what Redleaf says she hoped for because she didn’t like the court’s remedy: Allow the safety plans but set up a better review process.

Richard Wexler, who heads the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, refers to these placements as “invisible cases” that can go on indefinitely if there’s no court oversight.

Some states might rely on this method because it saves money, he said, because there’s not the added expense of foster care or the cost of the prevention services that might help keep a child from being removed in the first place.

“The excuse for present-danger plans often is that it’s a way to get through a short-term crisis,” Wexler wrote in an email to the Arizona Daily Star.

“But almost always, such a crisis can be solved by bringing help in to the home instead of taking the child out.”

Other states might use safety plans to hide their real rates of removal, he said, and to make it look like the state is doing better with families and child well-being than it is actually doing.

If recorded, these cases would have increased Arizona’s removal rate in fiscal year 2018, which was 14,516, by more than 700 children, an increase of about 4.6 percent.

Kelly Olsen, an investigative supervisor with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said her state has been using what are called Parental Child Safety Placements for many years .

“The most critical detail to remember about a PCSP is that it is meant to be short-term and temporary,” Olsen wrote in an email response to the Star.

“In most instances, it should not last more than 60 days.”

As in Arizona, these Texas placements are not considered a removal.

And that’s one of the things that Wexler says concerns him most: child removals that are unknown to the courts and the federal government.

Arizona called “diligent”

Theresa Costello, executive director of Action for Child Protection, agrees safety-plan removals should be carefully supervised.

Her North Carolina nonprofit provides training to child welfare agencies nationwide and specializes in safety assessment and safety-plan programs.

Costello was here in July 2017 to help Arizona begin to use this approach. She says most states have some variation of the plan.

“I believe Arizona has been very thoughtful and diligent in their work on this and that they continue to make sure that they are doing quality work,” she said.

Caseworkers carrying out these plans have to address any immediate threat to a child’s well-being as the first priority, she said.

“The logic behind it is that, when you first make contact with a family, you are going to have a very limited amount of information because, in most circumstances, you’re not going to be able to interview everyone immediately,” she said.

“At some point, you have to make a decision based on what you know.”

The scenarios presented in the book used to train Arizona’s caseworkers about this approach included one about a mother who kept falling asleep when she should have been tending to her children, ages 3 and 7.

The mother in this hypothetical case was using methadone to manage her addiction to opioids, refused to admit there was a problem with her parenting and declined services.

What, then, should a caseworker do?

The alternatives presented in the book include having an in-home plan set up, in which a responsible adult is in the home either full time or at certain times to monitor the well-being of the children.

Another choice might be for a responsible adult, family member or friend to move into the home.

Or the children might go live with a friend or relative while DCS conducts a more thorough investigation.

The key is to figure out if there is “present danger” that might bring about injuries to a child.

Caseworkers were told to look for parents who are unable to care for their child adequately because of domestic violence, alcohol or substance use, or mental-health or cognitive challenges.

To that end, Castello said, Arizona’s 14-day limit allows enough time for gathering more information, but stops it from going on too long.

The intention, she said, is “for the family to agree to an arrangement for the child to be safe without having to be formally removed.”

Castello said since there are so many of these cases annually that work well and are never litigated, she takes the criticism “with a grain of salt.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar