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A New Top 3 Issue with DCS …. and I am Disgusted

As with any organization, there are going to be major issues in the outcomes they derive based on how they do business. Obviously, the worst outcome for any child welfare agency would be the death, injury or anything that hurts a child in any way. The second would be that point where a child is removed from their home and the vicious cycle of trauma is thrust upon them. Either of these are a terrible circumstance of a process that could lead to significant and long-term harm to individuals and families.

Until today, I thought other outcomes could be prioritized in a variety of ways. But now I have a third high risk outcome. Recently, an adoption that was finalized in January of this was dissolved because the courts determined that the case presented by DCS was fraudulent. Wow.

Being part of an adoptive family, I am fully aware what it takes to get to that special adoption day when a child becomes part of your new Forever Family. The fact that this special day can be taken away is unfathomable. The fact that any government agency would allow this to happen is unconscionable.

Other than equating it to a death in a family, I cannot fully understand the level of trauma that is now given to the child involved and the family that gave of themselves to adopt this child. The child must be confused, concerned and lost. Who really is their family? Why did someone put me through this? How do I trust any adult after that has happened to me in the last couple years?child_cry_crying_tears-800x430

The same thing goes for the family … or any future adoptive family. They put their lives on hold for this adoption and made a lifetime commitment to this child and now because of some sort of legal fraud, the child is taken away. How can this even happen? Where are the checks and balances? Where are the legal representatives for the families, the kids and even the judge as this takes place? Is no one paying attention?

Why do I write this column when it is supposed to be a blog about accountability at DCS? Since the first day of my writing I have pointed out time and time again the lack of accountability and the critical need for measuring the performance of this organization to ensure this accountability. Nothing has changed but the name on the door (from CPS to DCS). It is operated with the same veil of secrecy and lack of accountability. Because of the lack of meaningful tracking of performance outcomes at DCS, we are now in a situation where adoptions may soon be voided due to fraud resulting from this lack of accountability. Putting aside the incredible emotional toll this is going to take on kids and families, can you imagine the legal costs of going back and looking at every adoption for the past number of years?

I cannot imagine that anyone in Arizona would ever move forward with an adoption in this state again? How could you? You put your life on hold for this process and in a case like this one I heard about, all that hard work is dissolved 11 months later. I would never again recommend someone adopt from Arizona’s Department of Child Safety. The risk to your family and their emotions is too great.

Our state government should be ashamed. Every person in Arizona should be ashamed that we have invested way too much money in a system that operates so poorly and that in many cases does not even live up to its name of providing child safety.

Personally, I am disgusted, disappointed and embarrassed of my state. If this doesn’t change the need for laser focused accountability, we have no hope. And of course, we continue to lose faith in our government representatives.

 

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AZ Republic “Kind of” Gets It

In today’s AZ Republic Laurie Roberts writes a column about a child who is suing the state for the abuse she endured in foster care.  It was awful and hard to read, but here is a link to the story:  Laurie Roberts. AZ Republic column 7/10/17

Like any person with a pulse, it is heartbreaking to hear those stories and when I was chair of the State Foster Care Review Board we had to read them consistently and it never got easier.

However, I have to point out that I believe Ms. Roberts is asking the wrong questions.

As DCS and the governor go around the state proclaiming victory, they continue to point out only specific numbers of children in care. In my opinion, that is not even the most important number to be measured and reported. Instead, we should be demanding that we should operate like a business (sound familiar?) and report all the operating metrics of a successful operation. It is akin to a business only reporting sales and never reporting profits, cash flow, volume moved, market share, etc., which is deemed unacceptable by investors! DCS should be reporting and operating under a broad range of metrics and accountability so every child in care has a successful outcome (defined as better off than when they came in to the system).

Last year a small group of local businessmen got together and presented a complete review of the processes at DCS and recommended the type and timing of reporting that would give the department, and then citizens like you and I a real view of where things were working and not working that would give a better picture of what was happening with children. While there was no specific measure of bath temperatures, there were metrics for education, medical, visits, time in care, etc.  When you measure the specific actions of what can lead to a successful outcome, when they fall short it indicates that there are problems in the household. It would not be a stretch that if certain elements of a successful outcome in foster care falling short, there are other issues for that child. If these metrics were used for every case, it would be more clear when there are issues like the one you wrote about today.

Recommendations were made to DCS in a variety of settings and the group was consistently told why it wouldn’t work (none were acceptable answers).  It was also presented to the co-chairs and their staffs of the DCS Legislative Oversight Committee in hopes it would be included in their year-end recommendations but only marginally addressed in those recommendations. Bottom line, there is across the board failure on adding accountability to DCS.

The correct answer I believe the AZ Republic should be asking follows the adage; “what gets measured gets done”. I do not believe you will see MEANINGFUL changes in outcomes for kids in Arizona’s foster care system until we add complete and comprehensive metrics and accountability.

I appreciate that Ms. Roberts is steadfast in her efforts to create awareness of these issues, I just hope she starts asking the right questions.

It’s Foster Care Awareness Month … Why Do We Need Awareness?

May is National Foster Care Awareness Month.  As soon as the month starts, I always post something on my Facebook or send out a tweet acknowledging the event.  Every year I am surprised by a comment a friend makes to my post.  This year, a friend of mine who is well-aware of my 15-years of foster parenting, commented on an article in the Arizona Republic that shared the difficulty for a kid in care to get a driver’s license.  For me, it was another example of how little the general community knows about the struggles of kids in foster care.   May is Foster Care Awareness Month

In all honesty, while I have been a foster parent I understandably cannot totally empathize how life changing being in foster care can be for a kid.  To prove this, last week I was challenged by a young man who has aged out to put myself “in his shoes” when he was a foster youth.  He asked me to pick one of these challenges: 

Challenge One:  Get patted down for a week each time you return home.

Challenge Two: Go without utilizing your cell phone for a day and only use a land-line when making phone calls (bonus-you are only allowed three calls for a max of 15 minutes per call). 

Challenge Three:  For 3 days ask permission every time you want to get into the fridge or pantry to eat (bonus- for 3 days ask permission to participate in ALL activities including work, cooking, going anywhere apart from work, and participating in any recreation activities).

When he gave me this this challenge he told me that these were all things that happened to him when he was in foster care.  Can you imagine?  What an invasion of privacy and lack of trust when you are frisked every time you walk in to a home.  It is not only humiliating, but emotionally hurtful and something that will never leave his memory.

I never even thought of these things and certainly never considered them for my children.  And, if you think this is just a one-time occurrence, you should know that there are 3,753 kids between the ages of 13 & 17 in AZ foster care today. And whether they live in a group home or with a foster family, there are challenges we can never imagine.   That’s why we need a Foster Care Awareness Month!

It is also important to note that that there are still more than 17,000 kids in Arizona’s foster care system who have experienced trauma and instability like the young man above.  That’s why we need a Foster Care Awareness Month!

And if you think that it is just something a kid can get over, then you truly don’t understand the trauma and issues of being in foster care.  Here are facts about outcomes for kids in foster care …

  • The average reading level of 17- and 18-year-old foster youth is seventh grade
  • Children in care miss an average of five weeks of school per year
  • Less than 60 percent of young people who age out of foster care will graduate high school by the age of 19
  • Of those that do go to college, only 4 percent graduate with a degree by age 26

Therefore we need a Foster Care Awareness Month! May Is Foster Care Awareness Month

As a community, we have to do better.  If you want to learn more about life in foster care, here are two sources:

Fostering Advocates Arizona.  This is a local organization that provides support to help share what it is like to be in foster care.  There are stories that you may find interesting or maybe even a way you can lend a hand.  http://www.fosteringadvocatesarizona.org

Foster My Education.  This is a national program from Children’s Rights that also has some stories about life in foster care.  Fostering the Future

 

A Bold, But Good Move By DCS

It was recently reported that the Department of Child Safety is changing its policy that for a child to be removed from his/her home, a court order will be required unless the child is in imminent danger.  This is not only a bold move, but the right move by the department.

It’s bold because of what will be required for the policy to be implemented.  It is the right thing to do because it gives well-meaning families an opportunity to have a third party evaluate the wisdom of a traumatic removal of a child from a home.

As with any new policy, the devil is in the details but the training required to prepare case workers to properly prepare a good case to a judge will be challenging.  It is an entirely new way of approaching things and good judges do not allow the lack of good preparation and facts get in the way of good decision making.  It will also be a challenge for the already overburdened court system that must have a way to respond to case workers in a timely fashion to keep the best interests of the children in mind.

But think of the power of this process.  Too often we hear stories of case workers removing children because of personal bias, lack of understanding of the issues or even fear of reprisal should something happen to that child because they didn’t remove.  Instead, this will force more preventative measures be implemented as case managers will recognize that a family needs support, but may not meet the criteria of removal.

This leads us to what will be the key to success of this initiative …. training.  DCS will need to create clear definitions of what it means for a child(ren) not be safe.  Judges will be required to ensure that case mangers fully understand the difference between a struggling family and one where a child is not safe, and hold them accountable for proving their case.  No longer will a dirty house or being a latchkey kid be the only criterial for “neglect” and removal.  Instead, I can see a future where real risk is clearly defined and understood and then case managers take care of the minor issues of neglect managed with compassion and education for families.  People will get the help they need and we will place significantly less trauma on our children when they are removed from their families.

 A few years ago, as State Chair of the Foster Care Review Board, I participated in Removal Reviews that were conducted by the Foster Care Review Board.  Removal Reviews were an attempt to have a third-party review within 72 hours of a child being removed.  Great idea. Not so great implementation. The process became a ‘rubber stamp’ of removal decisions that had already been made.  Case managers and supervisors overruled the volunteers on the panel, and inevitably, the child was removed.  It rendered the process irrelevant and was cancelled.

DCS should learn from the FCRB Removal Review process.  Clear rules and definitions combined with training for DCS investigators and judges is critical.  In the end, the use of ‘warrants’ will make for a more compassionate child welfare system where we care more about the family than having government take sole responsibility for the child.

I admire Director McKay for taking such a bold step in keeping the best interests of children in the forefront of our process and I applaud the effort.  

 

 

 

 

The World’s Best “Pretend Listeners”

In a call the other day with a colleague, he described DCS (Department of Child Safety) as “world class pretend listeners”.  At the time, I chuckled but after thinking about, I find it to be a very insightful thought. 

Over the past 15 years of being a foster parent I have sat on many committees or groups to help make lives better for those kids who touch Arizona’s foster care system.  No matter how much time I spend in these meetings, there is one consistent outcome … not much changes or improves. 

DCS asks families to sit in focus groups, presents to groups and provides reports at places like the Legislative Oversight Committee.  But at the end of the day, the presentations are largely lacking in real, actionable information, and DCS is not ‘listening to’ as much as ‘talking to.  This is not to say that the good folks at DCS do not work hard nor are their intentions not good.  The fact is, they listen a lot.  But I think that is what makes them the world’s best “pretend listeners”.

Let me be clear in the fact that this is not necessarily a knock on the quality of the people at DCS.  Many of them are very good people who have nothing but the best intentions to help kids.  The fact of the matter is that while they pretend to listen, at the end of the day they will do exactly what they want to do despite what input they receive.  Perhaps this can happen because of the lack of accountability for outcomes in places like DCS?  In business, my experience has been that shareholders, board members or even customers hold companies accountable.  You cannot “pretend listen” to a customer or they stop working with your company!  This doesn’t happen often with DCS.

So how do we stop DCS’ “pretend listening”?  The only way for external constituents to hold DCS accountable to end this practice, is to have accurate and detailed data published in a timely and consistent fashion for a broad base of measures.  When this happens, the conversations can change from theoretical, broad based discussions to meaningful dialogue about the department’s performance against real outcomes.  Frankly, I believe it will make DCS leadership a much more powerful voice and give the community more confidence in the work, when they can address facts rather than the broad strokes they report today.  So it can be a win-win if the leadership looked at it this way!

I wish I could “pretend care”.  But I can’t.  There are too many bad situations for kids in Arizona and I want us to get better.  Raising the bar and looking at the right measures is the only path to more meaningful and relevant discussions on how we can all improve outcomes for Arizona’s kids.  Please join me in this discussion! 

Does Child Welfare Not Work Because it is Too Expensive?

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. 

Hello, McFly? Can’t You See That Nothing Is Changing?

In the “Back to the Future” movie series when the obvious is overlooked, they use the phrase, “Hello McFly” to insinuate that there was something obvious that was missed or overlooked.  I can’t help but ask the same question … has anyone noticed that major outcomes are not improving with the new Department of Child Safety?

In May of 2014 Governor Brewer created this new department with the intent of improving performance and outcomes for kids in care.  And where are we?  In the third quarter of 2014 there were more than 16,000 kids in care. Today, there are more than 19,000.  Despite the fact that the number of kids in care has declined nationally, Arizona is increasing the number of kids in care.Out of Home foster Care

Source:  Child Trends DATA BANK, Foster Care, “Indicators on Children and Youth”, Updated: December 2015; and Child Maltreatment Report, Children’s Bureau (2000-2014); Arizona Semi-Annual Child Welfare Report on Child Welfare (March 200- December 2015).

If there was no other fact to examine, we have to ask ourselves why we are taking kids away from their homes at such a greater rate than what is happening nationally?  Something is wrong! “Hello McFly?”

Some may argue that the number of kids in care is not really a measure that tells how DCS is actually performing because there are other issues at hand.  For example, when the number first started growing so dramatically the economy and recession were blamed.  The worst is now behind us and yet the numbers continue to grow at alarming rates in Arizona versus other states.  Some blame that prevention programs were cut at the start of the recession and this drove the intake numbers.  There are two sides to that story.  First, there were some dollars provided for in-home services that were redirected to foster care.  Bad call.  Second, there are new dollars that the legislature has assigned to prevention and to their credit, they have put some controls on that allocation.  There is a need for much greater control on what is happening with our children!  “Hello, McFly?”

The DCS Legislative Oversight Committee has developed a report for the key measures that align with national evaluation of performance.  Two of those key measures include length of time in care and change in congregate care that will demonstrate how or if we are improving outcomes in our system.  So let’s look at how we are doing there.

Here is a simple chart that shows how may kids are in care and for what length of time.  More and more kids are spending more and more time in care, away from family and support that can best help them flourish.

Length of time in careSource:  Arizona Semi-Annual Child Welfare Report on Child Welfare (March 2000-December 2015)

While this chart shows the total numbers, the percentages of kids and the time have not improved. This is an important outcome that DCS needs to make a priority!

The following chart shows where kids in care are placed.  I was both surprised and pleased the first time I saw this chart that so many kids that are taken in to care get placed with relatives.  In the same vein, I am equally surprised but disappointed at the growth in numbers of kids in congregate care settings. Placement type This number is up 50% since 3Q 2014 and must stop.  It not only obvious (“Hello McFly”) that the best setting for a young person is in a family, but the costs of congregate care the highest of any other type.  Use of congregate care for our children must stop and this must be a priority for DCS.

 Source:  Arizona Semi-Annual Child Welfare Report on Child Welfare (March 2000-December 2015)

In previous postings I have pointed out that when kids go into foster care it is undeniably traumatic. It is traumatic to their well-being.  This is demonstrated in the fact that only 39% of Arizona kids in care graduate from high school and less than 3% ever graduate from college.  I recently heard a great question about foster care: “Is the cure worse than the disease?”.  What a sad question to ask, but probably a good one.  The budget for DCS is equivalent to more than $40,000 per child in care.  We are spending inordinate amounts of money on our system with poor outcomes.  We need to just ask the question that other than children who are subjected to criminal conduct situations, are we really improving their opportunity for a happy, successful life my taking them in to foster care?

So what do we do?

In a June 15, 2016 press release the Department wrote about measuring “progress by the numbers.”  Unfortunately, they are measuring he WRONG numbers.  I would encourage you to check out the news release and see for yourself.  The department is reporting on activity, not outcomes!  “Hello McFly!”

For my 15 years of being a foster parent this is how the department talked about what they were doing.  From a business perspective, it is akin to a sales people talk about how many presentations they made or how many free samples they gave away.  It doesn’t matter!  When it comes to sales, all that matters are the outcomes or how much you sold.  If you sell a lot, you are a great sales person.

It’s time that our elected representatives hold DCS accountable for outcomes in numbers that relate to kids in care, numbers in congregate care and length of time they spend in care.  Processes are broken, we are failing in improving our system and kids are suffering.  If we do not focus on improving outcomes for any kid in care, then we have little to no chance of actually improving the opportunity for them to have happy and successful lives ….. “Hello McFly!”

To me, it’s obvious that we are no better off with the new DCS.  I am disappointed that elected leaders just shuffled the deck chairs.  All the while, the well-being of more than 19,000 kids is sinking.

Do you have a comment or suggestion, please leave one!  Thank you!