This week the US Department of Agriculture came out with an estimate that it costs more than $233,000 to raise a child to the age of 17, not including the cost of college. This amounts to almost $14,000 per year for food, clothing, transportation and all the things that make it possible to bring the little “bundles of joy to adulthood.”
Could the cost of raising a child drive the reasons why child welfare is so dysfunctional? I doubt it. Let’s be honest, politicians make budget appropriations where the votes go and money flows … and kids don’t vote nor do they make campaign contributions. That’s not to say that politicians don’t care about kids. I am sure they love their own children and many go above and beyond to be great parents and grandparents themselves. But kids in the child welfare system don’t have lobbyists, PR firms or even adults who can speak for them. So what happens? Other priorities happen.
Arizona has one of the worst track records in foster care in the country. Every governor has talked about it, but results have been poor. Recent good news from our current governor was that for the first time in seven years, the Department of Child Safety (DCS) is taking in fewer kids than are leaving the system. That is fantastic new and we are optimistic that it will continue. But do we know for a fact that it will continue? No, we don’t.
We don’t know because the Department only publishes limited information.
For those of you who have read my blog previously, you know that I have been hawkish about the need for better reporting and accountability at DCS. Late last year I was invited to sit in with some of the leaders at DCS and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budgeting on a project to simplify and consolidate reporting. At the outset, it was acknowledged by the leaders of the meeting that we could also submit suggestion for improved reporting. I was optimistic that this government was truly going to “operate like a business” when it came to child welfare as the governor had promised when he campaigned for the office.
There was a small group of independent (defined as having no contracts or responsibility to the system) folks who worked and developed a well thought out and thorough recommendation for reporting. At the end of the session, a recommendation was sent to the governor that included none of those recommendations. In all my years of trying to help with foster care issues in Arizona, this was as disappointed and frustrated as I have ever been.
I do not believe that the requirement to improve child welfare is only about money nor is it only about influence. Money helps and if kids could speak for themselves it would help their cause, but transparency and accountability in reporting is the key. Until the folks in decision making roles take this seriously, we may never know if DCS is on the right path. In the meantime, we can just hope they are, or in my case, hope that someday they will use simple tools to measure, evaluate and hold themselves accountable for real progress.