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Arizona Daily Star investigation: Fixing our foster care crisis

After peaking with nearly 19,000 children in foster care in 2016, Arizona set out to keep more families together and pull fewer kids from their homes.

Some changes are taking hold, and the number of kids in out-of-home care is trending downward. But the state still hasn't tackled the bigger question: How can we solve the problems that spurred the foster care crisis?

Deep state spending cuts in the last decade to services that helped struggling families left Arizona's child safety agency as the catch-all for cases that were often more about poverty, family dysfunction and addiction than intentional child abuse.

The Arizona Daily Star, with support from the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and the USC Annenberg Center's Fund for Journalism on Child Well-being, investigated how our state came to have one of the nation's highest rates of child removal, and how we can keep more kids at home by helping at-risk families break generational cycles of trauma, neglect or abuse.

Four Star journalists talked with more than 100 local, state and national leaders in reform. They visited six U.S. states to see what programs are working to support families at home, transform child safety agencies and guide children and families to a healthy future.

The team searched for solutions that could work in Arizona — and will share them in three installments this month. 


Reporter Patty Machelor visited Washington state and Colorado, and reporter Perla Trevizo visited Los Angeles to learn how states and counties can keep kids from entering foster care by building stronger families.

• Programs break generational cycles of trauma and dysfunction by teaching resilience and offering parents intensive in-home help.

• Federal money allocated to help struggling families goes to programs that transition them to independence, rather than to investigate parents and remove children from their homes.


March 11's report highlights changes in policy and attitude that led to the transformation of child welfare agencies in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. Reporter Emily Bregel visited both places and saw how formerly dysfunctional agencies became national models for reform by training workers to partner with parents rather than punish them, and by adopting a mantra of "whatever it takes" to help families succeed.

• Local offices have autonomy to determine what services families in their area need.

Caseworkers are empowered to serve families with thorough training, reasonable caseloads and access to services that are individualized for an increasingly diverse population, not "cookie cutter."

• A public-private partnership helps grandparents and other "kinship" placements get licensed as foster parents. Licensure comes with financial support that helps make these placements stable and keeps kids out of the system.


On March 18, the focus shifts to reinvention — what happens after a family is reunited or when foster kids turn 18 and are expected to make it on their own. Editorial Page Editor Sarah Garrecht Gassen spent time in Michigan and California, where programs successfully serve clients over the long haul.

• Parents getting their kids back from foster care have support available to them around the clock for four months — plus two months more if needed.

• Caseworkers paired with families ask them, "Tell me what would make things better," then they work with them to solve those root problems.

• Program organizers "measure everything," using data to make sure the services they offer are actually working.

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Spanking can lead to abuse, experts say

The piercing cries of a colicky baby, a toddler kicking and screaming as she struggles to express herself, a fourth-grader acting out at home because he is being bullied at school.

Parenting is often said to be both the most rewarding and the most intense job a person can have. And being parented well is crucial to a child’s future success.

Historically, parenting was often power-based, with limited consideration of the child’s feelings, age or budding intellect. Children in some families feared their parents, and misbehavior was met with spanking, yelling or harsh criticism. Or worse.

For families with long histories of trauma, child abuse and neglect, patterns can be difficult to change. But several local organizations are dedicated to the cause — among them the Parent Connection, Casa de los Niños and the Pima County Parenting Coalition.

Tucsonan Roberta Rudnitsky found parenting help through Casa de los Niños after her relationship with her oldest daughter began to deteriorate.

“As she got older, I started having trouble interacting with her,” Rudnitsky says. “I was raised with, ‘Do this and do that or else you’ll get spanked.’ ”

What Rudnitsky found is that the more she spanked and yelled, the more her daughter either withdrew or acted out. At her job as a dental hygienist, Rudnitsky said she saw confident and seemingly happy children and she found herself asking their parents, “Do you spank your children?”

The response, she says, was almost always no.

Her anxiety peaked last spring when her daughter, who is 11, tearfully told her she no longer wanted to live with her. Six months later, after a series of classes, their relationship is evolving.

“That realization, that you are abusing your child by hitting and yelling, oh, there was a lot of guilt at that point,” Rudnitsky says. “She had learned to fear me.”

Rudnitsky realizes she parented as she did because it was what she had learned. She’s also realized she wants the pattern to stop.

“You revert back to what’s common, what’s known,” she says. “When we argue and battle and yell, our children learn this behavior.”

Some parents who take classes at Casa de los Niños are referred by the courts, while others, like Rudnitsky, come on their own, said parenting teacher Mayela de la Torre.

“A lot of times, parents want it their way and the kids want it their way,” she said. “We try to get across that kids are little people and it works best to give them choices.”

The teachers urge parents not to spank, says Carol Weigold, the organization’s director of child abuse prevention.

“There is substantial, researched evidence that physical punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future,” Weigold says.

It is easy for a frustrated or angry parent to cross the line from spanking to child abuse, she says.

“Spanking does not teach a child the ‘right behavior.’ Instead, it teaches the child they are bad and deserve to be hurt.”

Worldwide, 32 countries prohibit spanking, or corporal punishment, of children.

Sweden was the first, with a national ban in the 1970s, says Deborah Sendek, program director for the Center for Effective Discipline, which is part of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center.

Women who were spanked as children often have trouble establishing boundaries in relationships and are more vulnerable to domestic violence, she says. Men who were hit, in turn, often have trouble recognizing other people’s boundaries and are more at risk to become abusers.

Children who are not hit tend to have broader vocabularies and reasoning skills than children who are spanked, she says, especially when the hitting occurs during the toddler and preschool years.

While 31 states in the U.S. have banned corporal punishment in schools, parents nationwide are allowed to spank their children as long as the hitting is “reasonable” and the marks temporary.

Determining whether injuries are reasonable and temporary can be tricky for Child Protective Services’ workers, Sendek says.

“The majority of the physical-abuse cases we see, with injured children coming into the emergency room, is from a parent who has lost control when they were hitting or spanking. The child didn’t respond the way the parent wanted, for example, and the parent was so angry, it just got out of control.”

That’s one of the many reasons spanking is not a good idea, she says: “If you don’t start with spanking, it won’t lead to that.”

Arizona is one of 19 states that permits spanking, or paddling, in schools. Ohio banned it in 2009, and New Mexico followed in 2011.

“Arizona allows it, but you will find your numbers are very low. It’s not happening in a majority of the schools,” she says.

Sendek says when there is spanking at home and at school, it’s often a vicious cycle for the child.

“Kids who repeatedly get paddled at school are often the ones who are having trouble at home, and if they get it at school, they are going to get it twice as hard at home,” she says.

Most parents want what is good for their children, she says, and they just don’t realize there are different ways.

“Our goal is to help parents understand that every time a child is hit, there are changes in the body and the brain,” she says. “Is that really what you want?”


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