This past month has been an interesting one for me. I have come across a lot of different situations with different folks in different roles that touch the Arizona foster care system. I have met with our new case manager, our licensing agency, been to court for a hearing for our current child, met with folks from the Department of Child Safety, including volunteering at the new intake center, talked with a couple different media outlets who are reporting on the current crisis and even tried to get the attention of legislators who are writing the very rules that are supposed to improve our system.
Being a foster parent for more than 14 years I have always had an optimistic view that things have to get better. I have always tried to be optimistic but the tide has turned for me and I am not sure any if I can be optimistic any longer. My daughter and her husband also became licensed foster parents in this last month and I am honestly not sure they have a positive situation to look forward to. Arizona’s child welfare system is at an all-time low and there is no clear path for turning it around.
Here is why I am concerned:
- Our new case manager is a very nice lady who has been with the department for two months, and while she is very nice young lady, she is hardly prepared to handle any sort of a complicated case. We have a new case manager because the previous one, who had been with the department for less than a year, quit because she felt that she couldn’t help kids in the way the department was run. How sad is that? Turnover is rampant, caseloads continue to exceed recommended national standards and the Department of Child Safety has yet to hire the authorized number of case managers that our legislators have authorized.
- We are caring for a three year old child who has been with us for nearly a year and nothing is moving forward. This is young child who has already had a birthday party while in our care and there is no clear path to permanency for her. We were recently told that the earliest they could schedule a severance hearing would be in February 2016! If this is the earliest, she will have been in foster care for more than 18 months at that point … more half of her life! That is just wrong. So In court this month I pleaded with the judge to do something and referenced the 1997 Adoptions and Safe Family Act that is supposed to shorten the time-frame for a child’s first permanency hearing, No surprise, but I was ignored by the judge (technically, I have no standing so not surprising). No lawyer, no case manager, no one pushed for permanency in this hearing. That is also just wrong.
- We continue to recommend a concurrent case plan for this little girl, which means the state will identify a potential adoptive family at the same time they are working to reunify her with her biological parents, but no progress has been made. It is all lip service, with no sense of urgency, so the plan for this little girl seems to be that she linger in foster care at a time when her brain is developing and she needs permanent relationships in order to thrive. If case managers had more support, more understanding of the rules and laws, and of course, more experience they would be the champions of children, not the paper pushers of bureaucracy.
- In my visit to the DCS intake center I met some amazing people that work there, but even more amazing young kids who are in a really bad situation. Volunteering there reminds me that every kid is special and they just need a hand from someone who cares for them. Unfortunately, they are in a situation they cannot control. This intake center however, is not a permanent answer. While it is certainly a better situation than a dry, cold and unfriendly office environment it is not a good long term solution. As a volunteer I have no idea what the situations for these kids are, , but I can’t help but think that with an intensive intervention of home and family services, many of these children don’t have to be there. DCS needs to expend as much effort preventing kids from coming in to care as they do taking them in to care.
With all that said about challenges throughout the foster care system, there is the one thing that has pushed me over the edge and the beginning of my total loss of faith in our system to care for our most vulnerable children. I have reviewed the most recent Department of Child Safety strategy document. There are some very good activities listed in that document and I sincerely hope they can implement many of them. While I was reviewing the document, I had a call with a legislative staff person about it. She noted that if they do all these things she “hopes” that things would get better. Really? We “hope” things get better? How about some accountability here!
There is nothing in the DCS document that directly says WHAT they are going to accomplish. In other words, the department did not commit to any meaningful change in outcomes and maybe worse, no one out there is holding the department accountable for any specific improvements.
Here are some simple goals that I believe DCS should add to its plan and then align their activities to achieve them. If they do, they we will see meaningful improvement in outcomes. All the measures here appear in the DCS Legislative Oversight Committee Dashboard and are requirements for Arizona to qualify for the Title IVE waiver from the Federal government so they can and are being measured today.
- Number of kids in care (e.g.: no more than 15,000 kids in care by 2017). Another option: Reduce the number of children entering out-of-home care to a maximum of 5 per 1,000 population (this would get your same result and/or achieve letter C below)
- Number of children/percent of total in congregate care (no more than 15% of total children in congregate care/2,200 children and less than 5% of children under 10 years of age).
- Reduce the length of stay of children in care by achieving a ratio of no more 6.5 kids in care per 1,000 population (this aligns with DCS’s 3rd goal in the DCS document and supports letter A above as well but assigns a targeted outcome, not just activity)
- Increase permanency for children in care without increase reentry (there are two measures in the Oversight Committee Dashboard that can be used here).
- Increase placement stability to achieve no more than 2 moves per 1,000 days in care (Again, this relates back to the DCS plan but assigns a measureable outcome)
So here we are at a time in Arizona’s history where the foster care system has never been more dysfunctional. I find it hard to believe that anyone who lives in our great state finds this situation to be an acceptable state of affairs; either citizens or those in government. So it is time for the leadership in our government who is responsible for this to realize that we must change outcomes as listed above and that it will require a renewed effort to improve processes, communication, increased understanding and outreach and most important, hold those who are managing our system accountable for improvements.
It is admirable that DCS has a strategic plan in place. But a strategic plan without accountability and measureable outcomes is nothing more than a “to do” list with no requirements to meet a deadline.