Arizona,Child Protective Services

Arizona's DCS: Why are kids taken away? Too often the answer is unknown

January 23, 2017
in Kids

When Arizona workers refused to let Maribel Ontiveros see her son Christopher at the hospital, then came to her house three days later at 3:30 in the morning to take away her other two children, she kept asking what seemed a simple question: Why? More than a year later, she’s still asking. This story is the first in an ongoing investigation of child-welfare issues in Arizona. In 2016, when the number of children removed from their families peaked at over 18,000, the Arizona Community Foundation gave The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com a three-year grant to support in-depth research on the topic. As part of that effort, reporter Bob Ortega and our other experts investigate the reasons behind the surge in foster children and the systems meant to support and protect them. Through our reporting and editorial pages, we seek solutions to those problems. Are you a part of the system? We want to understand your story. Go to childwelfare.azcentral.com. Ontiveros and her common-law husband, Antonio Garcia, a house painter, had never had any run-ins with the police or child-welfare workers before they took their son Christopher, then 13, to Phoenix Children’s Hospital in August 2015. They hoped doctors could figure out why he’d started having debilitating panic attacks. The hospital kept the boy for observation. But after several daily visits to Christopher, one Saturday, security guards refused to let his parents see him. “‘You have to talk to DCS,’ they said,” remembered Ontiveros. ARIZONA CHILD WELFARE: There are some issues we just won’t let go Shocked, confused, she called DCS, Arizona’s Department of Child Safety. But “they said they couldn’t give me any information,” she said. Nor would DCS caseworkers say why they’d come, early on Sunday, when they knocked on the door in the dark and demanded to see the couple’s daughter Carolina, 9, and their son Irving, 16. They wouldn’t say why when they returned with two police officers a few hours later and took the children away in a van, as Ontiveros sobbed and Garcia filmed their removal on his cellphone. He tried to calm her, saying it had to be a mistake they’d soon sort out. All the caseworkers left the parents was a piece of paper with the vague word, “neglect.” The Garcia Ontiveros family isn’t alone in finding that DCS can seem to be an informational black hole. There are a great many questions about why DCS removes children that the agency itself can’t, today, answer — because no one there knows. Over the past decade, only tiny Wyoming and West Virginia may have removed children at a higher rate than Arizona. Arizona has seen easily the steepest increase of any state in how many kids it removes from their families. Since 2005, as the number of children in the foster-care system declined in most states, it climbed in Arizona, nearly tripling to peak at more than 19,000 children at the end of February. That surge overwhelmed the Department of Economic Security’s Child Protective Services division. By late 2013, CPS faced a still-rising backlog of more than 14,000 inactive, uninvestigated reports of child abuse or neglect. There were too few foster families, too few spaces in group homes. Children waiting to be placed were sleeping in caseworkers' offices and cars. “Nobody could handle that kind of rapid growth,” said Greg McKay, director of the Department of Child Safety. “We had a capacity crisis. It was a snowball effect.” RELATED: A Phoenix shelter where children in state care wait for a home, help Buried under huge caseloads, many workers defaulted to removing a child if they had the slightest doubt. A few missed clues, leaving children home who later were killed by their own parents. Burned-out caseworkers quit in droves. The agency seemed under siege. Gov. Jan Brewer and the GOP-led Legislature had slashed the division’s funding and staffing deeply in 2009, amid broader cutbacks after an economic downturn. But as the crisis became inescapable, in 2014 they decided to rebuild CPS as a stand-alone department: the Department of Child Safety. They restored some of the agency’s funding so it could hire more caseworkers, increase pay and recruit more foster families. Comparing numbers is tricky because of one-time costs, including with the switch-over; but essentially, the new DCS got about $120 million more from the state’s general fund over the past two fiscal years (including a special session in 2015), than it received in 2014. This year, under Gov. Doug Ducey, general-fund contributions to DCS fell about $23 million from last year, which included one-time spending to trim the backlog of uninvestigated cases. Now, as the Arizona Legislature considers where to focus its attention and spending, McKay can point to significant successes: The new department has recruited more than 1,000 additional foster spaces for children. DCS has cut the wait time for a child to be placed in a foster or group home to under 10 hours from almost 44 hours. The department trimmed its backlog of inactive cases to under 2,600 and falling. Recent calls to DCS’ child-abuse hotline average 35 seconds on hold, down from more than 11 minutes. Perhaps most importantly, the number of children taken from their families has plateaued, at least for now. The 13,132 children whom DCS workers removed in the state fiscal year that ended June 30 were just eight children more than they removed in fiscal 2015. After peaking last February, the number of children in out-of-home care declined by more than 900 by October, to under 18,000. Arizona lawmakers might feel tempted to declare “mission accomplished,” and move on. But not only do serious problems remain — the agency continues to lose more workers than it would like; and it struggles to find enough foster families, for example — DCS also lacks the information that it needs to fix key issues. Both the department and lawmakers, in effect have been making important decisions without clear answers to vital questions. That hamstrings efforts at effective reforms. McKay recognizes the need for better information, and he is tackling it. A former Phoenix police detective, he ran an investigative unit within CPS before being appointed as director of the reborn department in early 2015. He knows one reason DCS can’t answer crucial questions: Five years ago, CPS gave up on having overwhelmed caseworkers fill out forms that detailed, in 17 categories, the safety or health threats that justified taking a child away — such as domestic violence, drug use, unsafe living conditions or young children left unsupervised, among others. Instead, caseworkers now fill out brief narratives that vary in what specific information they contain, and that aren’t easy to search or analyze. At the time, given CPS’ antiquated data system, its shriveled budget and workforce, and the flood of new cases, there seemed to be little choice. Still, “that didn’t solve the problem," McKay said. “The backlog continued to grow.” And the lack of detailed assessment and specific-enough guidelines “left a lot of people to operate on their own.” PART OF THE SYSTEM? Help us understand your story The biggest questions the department can’t answer all relate to the one Maribel Ontiveros asked about the removal of her children: Why? Why does DCS remove so many children? Are Arizona parents simply the worst in the country? Or is something else going on? Given that four out of five children taken away are removed for alleged neglect, why hasn’t DCS systematically tracked and analyzed what kinds of neglect are the most common? And could Arizona keep children safer — and spend less doing so — if it took fewer of them away? Arizona’s child-welfare system has been a mess for a very long time. As far back as 1962, the Arizona Legislature appointed a special committee to investigate problems at the then-Department of Public Welfare and its Child Welfare division — including questions about when it took away children and how they fared in foster care. Many of that committee’s recommendations have been proposed repeatedly over the decades, and were made yet again in a 2015 report to the Legislature by the Chapin Hall Center for Children, a policy research center at the University of Chicago. Warning of “a crisis is in the making,” the 1962 study said that due to overwhelming caseloads, “workers are not able to know their cases well enough to know their needs. … It is impossible to see how substantial improvements in program administration can be effected … (without) a staff training program; strengthened field service; reductions in worker caseloads … reduction in high rate of staff turnover (and) professional training for key staff.” The Chapin Hall report neatly echoed those warnings 53 years later: “The inability of caseworkers to effectively protect children and serve families, given their increasingly high caseloads and lack of resources over the past few years, has been universally recognized as a contributing factor to the problems leading to the creation of the new Department.” Each report called for lowering caseloads; for doing a better job in collecting and analyzing information; for doing more to help struggling families before removing children; and for giving caseworkers clearer guidelines, to help them better decide when to take away...

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