“The Big Short” in Arizona’s Foster Care System

This past weekend I had the opportunity to go to a movie … usually a rarity for foster parents … and I saw “The Big Short”.  The movie focuses on all the things that led up to the big financial meltdown in 2008 and how some made billions of dollars by paying attention to the leading indicators, while big banks and financial institutions operated as if there were no issues on the horizon. 

As I left the theater, I couldn’t help but think about how the thinking of the big banks and financial intuitions parallels what is happening in Arizona amongst politicians and pundits in regards to our foster care system. 

The movie was very descriptive in explaining how obvious key financial indicators were ignored as industry leaders did ‘business as usual’ in a failing housing market.  No one was willing to look in to the future because living in the present was making people money and enabling them to keep the lives of which they had become so accustomed. 

The most interesting part of the movie for me was when Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt) scolded his two young hedge fund protégés for celebrating a recent deal they just completed, pointing out if the investment they just made were successful, it would result in thousands of people losing their jobs, homes and life savings. All of a sudden, the two young data wonks realized how financial decisions can greatly impact people’s lives.  It showed that business was more than just numbers, it was about real people and real lives. 

Sadly, it reminded me of the unnecessary celebration that took place at our state capitol with the establishment of the new Department of Child Safety.  In reality, the new DCS was a testament of past failure and certainly not a prediction of future success.  The key difference from the movie is that there was no one standing on the sidelines to point out that the celebration was uncalled for, and too soon.  The only thing that should ultimately be celebrated is improvements in outcomes for children, not politicians who paste a new label on an old department. 

In the movie, there were a handful of folks who were reading the indicators correctly who had the financial wherewithal to profit from doing so.  In Arizona, there are handfuls of folks who are seeing the numbers, but do not have the ability to affect changes in outcomes.  So we continue to see degradation in outcomes in our foster care system

For years, CPS/DCS has been sharing information with the community about things they are doing to improve the department.  In the same way that big banks did with shareholders who never knew or understood the finer details of how the banks were crushing the housing markets, no one seems to be paying attention to the things that matter most in Arizona’s child welfare system.  For example, the number of children in care is now more than 19,000, nearly double the number of kids in care in 2010.  The time a child in Arizona’s foster care system is now more than two years and growing.  The percentage of kids living in congregate care settings is more than 40% higher than it was five years ago.   These are just three of the key metrics that are critical to improving our system and yet, no one is being held accountable for these outcomes changing. 

We all know what happened during the financial crisis of 2008 because it is in our rear view mirror.  Ignoring key measures in the financial world resulted in catastrophic outcomes for our financial system. 

What will it take for leaders in Arizona to take a look at what is going with key measures of our foster care system and realize that we have a similar risk of a major meltdown in Arizona’s foster care system if we continue to operate it the way it has always been done?   

For the next fiscal year, DCS has already requested an increase in their budget of $100 million over the previous year.  While I am not privy to the details on how this will change the course of the department, I do know that if we continue to go down this path much longer the limited resources of tax payers will dry up and tough decisions on building roads versus caring for kids will have to conflict at some point.  Not to mention that if we don’t fix the required obligations to the IV-E waiver to reduce the length of stay in congregate care and length of stay in out-of-home care, we could risk the current funding received from the federal government. 

There is no doubt that turning around Arizona’s child welfare system is a daunting challenge.  The delay in addressing the key indicators and making meaningful changes and adjustments could be catastrophic to children in foster care in our state, as well as every taxpayer.  It is well past time for a change of course.  There is no ‘bailout’ for children in foster care. Their lives are impacted forever.   It’s time for Arizona politicians and policy makers, led by our governor who believes in “operating at the speed of business,” to ensure that Arizona does not make the same mistakes as short sighted business people in the past.  Let’s hold some folks accountable for meaningful change in outcomes in 2016!



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