After 15 years of being a foster parent caring for dozens of kids in our home and 15 years of optimism that Arizona would finally turn the corner and care for our most vulnerable children properly, I have come to the disappointing conclusion it may be impossible to fix. Here are the three reasons why Arizona’s foster care system may never be fixed:
1. Continued lack of operating discipline towards outcome improvements.
Our governor often jumps up on his bully pulpit to discuss his goal of operating Arizona government at the “speed of business” and sets this a goal for every department. As a business person, the idea that government would operate with the speed, accountability and focus on results as any business would is quite appealing and makes it seem that the services provided by the government would improve and provide an improved return on our tax dollar investment. However, if operating more like a business at every level is the governor’s goal, why does the Department of Child Safety not get included in this goal?
Operating at the “speed of business” to me means more than just working fast, but operating efficiently and with goals and measures that demand a return on the investment for every tax dollar spent. You don’t have to be a world class business person to notice how inefficiently DCS operates. The idea that the department is efficient in caring for the kids in the system, providing services and more important; moving a child in care to permanency, either back to their parents or to a forever family is laughable.
DCS has proven very capable of measuring and evaluating activity for the department. However, businesses look to affect long term outcomes or value for shareholders. DCS or its predecessor CPS, has never been adept at measuring and holding itself and its staff accountable for long term improvements in outcomes including the length of time a child spends in care, a reduction of children in congregate care settings and ultimately, lowering the number of children in our foster care system. Arizona remains one of the few states where counts continue to rise.
Without a focus on improvements in outcomes, like a business goes bankrupt, this department will not operate in a way to meet the needs of its constituents or “customers” and will continue to fail in Arizona.
2. Arizonan’s apathy about the issue.
As with any issue, generally the “squeaky wheel that gets the grease” or better said, the issue that is top of mind to citizens will get the attention. In Arizona, there are a variety of issues and constituencies that take a much higher priority. Who is to decide that our broken foster care system is a priority? You only have to look back to our state elections from last year to see that there were a lot of issues that were brought to the attention of voters. Child welfare was barely discussed and it was certainly not a reason why a voter would pick a candidate. Politicians know to talk about the issues that are important enough to voters to give them their vote and no one took on the child welfare mantel to get elected.
At the legislative level, the DCS Legislative Oversight Committee was established to provide oversight of the department. In the three years of its existence, it has only met a few times a year with very little focus. If this were a real priority, should this committee not be meeting frequently in an attempt to hold the department accountable?
At the end of the day, Arizona is a state with a transient population. New residents don’t necessarily believe that they have an obligation to again take care of issues with children that they dealt with earlier in their lives and it will not affect their reasons for being here. Certainly, this is not something that our tourism industry is concerned about, as it also does not affect them.
And most important all, kids don’t vote so the odds on this changing the apathy is nil if they don’t have a voice in setting priorities.
3. The cost to “do the right thing” will never be funded in Arizona.
The biggest challenge with having a child in foster care is the lack of broad understanding that this experience is a major traumatic event in a child’s life and something that will affect them forever. This means that there are not only physical needs such as shelter, food, and clothing, but also mental health needs that MUST be addressed early in care and throughout the experience and beyond. Mental health for children in foster care in Arizona is abysmal. The common excuse is that there are not enough resources. That’s funding for services has not been funded.
Kids in care also need education support. Only 33% of all children in foster care graduate from high school and less than 3% from college. How in the world do we change the cycle of kids in care if we cannot get them through a basic high school education? Nearly every child we have cared for in our home was behind in school when they came to our home. It’s a lot of work to even get them close to where they belong and it costs money. It costs money for tutors and education specialists and that requires resources and we continue to cut education spending year over year in our state. Why would anyone fund this type of education if it is not a priority?
There are needs in the courts, for lawyers for preventative care and on and on. In Arizona we tend to put a band aid on issues and hope they go away. Our system has been broken for more than 15 years. A band aid won’t fix it, only a major overhaul and not just a band aid in the form of a new name for a department can make a difference. But again, who has the will push for funding these further?
So what does this mean? It’s exactly why foster parents do not last long in the system. If we don’t believe that we can do the absolute best for a child in our care, then why try? For me, it most likely means that it is time to throw in the towel as a foster parent. For 15 years I have been optimistic that it will get better and I was committed to being part of making it happen. I was wrong. Dead wrong. These kids deserve better. I feel bad about the fact that I didn’t make enough of a difference.