The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
The good news is, after a massive surge in the first half of the decade, Arizona’s foster care totals are on the way down. The bad news: There are also fewer licensed homes available for youth who do need to live away from their parents.
The number of kids in Arizona foster care in 2019 is just over 13,200, according to data collected for The Chronicle of Social Change’s third annual “Who Cares” reporting project. That is down from a high of 17,738 in 2015.
But in the past year, the number of licensed foster homes in the Grand Canyon State has fallen from 4,513 to 4,074. That represents, on a daily basis, between 500 and 1,000 fewer beds in a trained foster family setting available for youth in foster care to sleep.
If a state is losing capacity in the area of licensed homes, there are two other primary options at its disposal for youth in care — with relatives and family friends known as fictive kin, or in “congregate care,” meaning group homes and institutions.
Arizona seems to be turning toward relatives. From 2011 to 2017, federal data indicate the number of youth being placed in relatives’ homes nearly doubled, from 3,465 to 6,702.
About a third of youth in foster care lived with relatives in 2011; now relatives care for close to half of them.
That is largely good news. Child welfare policy generally favors keeping children with their extended family whenever possible. And relying on relatives is much less expensive than group homes.
But we must be vigilant in ensuring that the optimal settings for children on paper are set up for success in reality.
According to the Arizona Department of Child Safety monthly program report for September 2019, the relatives caring for 4,818 Arizona foster youth are unlicensed.
Of those, 4,306 youth are living with grandparents. These caregivers do not receive any of the training that foster parents get, and they only see $71 per month in financial support, a full $527 less per child per month than foster parents who take in children they don’t know.
It is likely that sweeping changes to federal law will put pressure on Arizona to find more licensed homes and further grow its reliance on relatives.
The Family First Prevention Services Act will limit federal funds states can use to pay for congregate care, curbing a youth’s stay there to two weeks in most cases.
Group home care in Arizona costs $3,877 per youth, per month, while basic family foster care costs $598, according to that same DCS report. Under Family First, how Arizona covers the monthly bill of $7.4 million to care for those youth could change dramatically.
Arizona and nearly three dozen other states have chosen to take a two-year delay on the Family First Act to figure out its implications on group care, how the new law interacts with Medicaid, and adds dozens of relative caregivers to its roster of placement options for children who can’t live with their parents.
Of course, the easiest way to ensure the state has enough foster care placement options is to continue to decrease the number of kids coming into care.
Family First offers new federal dollars to support states in keeping some families together while dealing with crisis.
But when it comes to caring for the youth who the state decides do need to live away from their parents, now is the time to discuss what the future of foster care capacity looks like in Arizona.
That conversation should include new ways to professionalize, recruit and retain foster parents, strong support for relative caregivers, and a plan for reserving group care for emergencies and complex mental health or medical needs.