“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!

 

Accountabilty, Process Improvement and Working Together. It is All it Should take to turn Around DCS

It has been a more than year since the Arizona Legislature decided to scrap Child Protective Services and start up the Department of Child Safety.  So has this been a meaningful change?  Simply, no.  In that time, the number of children in our state’s foster care system has increased from 15,500 to more than 17,500 kids in care and the budget has grown in excess of $800 million.  We have had two directors of the new agency and of course, two governors in that same time frame.  All the while, the length of time that kids stay in care has increased and there are more kids in congregate care settings, all of which are poor reflections on the state of child welfare in our state.

So who is to blame?  Shall we blame the department and their leadership? Shall we blame the governors and legislators?  Shall we blame foster, kinship or adoptive parents?  How about the media for fanning the flames? Simply, no.  Every citizen in Arizona owns responsibility for the sad state of affairs of child welfare in our state.  Why?  Because the citizens of Arizona are not concerned enough to rise up and make this an important enough issue to be a topic of importance for any of the above.

We need Arizonans to educate themselves on the situation we have and demand the following from each other, lawmakers, the media and the foster care workers in our state:

  1. We must have an accountability system for those running the system and hold them accountable for changes.
  2. We must change the way we act and think about child welfare. Our system is broken and no one is demanding meaningful changes in how our processes work
  3. We must treat every child in the state, whether they are in foster care, in our schools or on our playgrounds as though they are treasured gifts we are responsible for helping thrive in our state.

Let’s start with accountability.  In the most recent strategic plan submitted by the Department of Child Safety there are many great ideas to help improve our system.  However, DCS has not signed up for any measureable changes.  There are no commitments on how many kids will be in foster care in 2016, 2017 or 2018.  There are no metrics for how the department will cut the times kids in care or lower the use of congregate care settings, which happens to be a key measure for future federal funding for the department. If there are no goals, how can we expect things to change?

Let’s be honest, this is a turnaround situation.  The reason DCS was formed was due to the impotency of its predecessor, CPS.  In business, when a company is in desperate need of a turnaround, measuring progress against predetermined outcomes is critical.  There is an old saying; “what gets measured gets done”.

Until we have a strong accountability system for DCS we should not expect things to get done.  So instead, let’s put one in place and hold those managing accountable.  When the progress is not being made, let’s quickly retrench on our plan and work until it does.

Second, we have to change the processes at DCS.  While the department has changed names, little else about how they do their work has changed.  We need to overhaul the processes in which care for these kids.  Albert Einstein once said that the definition of “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.  We should know better than using the same systems and processes at DCS that have been used for the past ten years.  It’s time re-engineer child welfare process at DCS just as a broken business would do in their turnaround of an underperforming business.

There is a lot of talk that DCS is underfunded by lawmakers.  Personally, I do not believe that money is an issue nor do I believe that throwing more money at DCS will solve the problem.  DCS has a budget of more than $800 million.  That is more than $45,000 per child in care.  The problem is that these resources are not organized or being used efficiently to solve the problems.  This is just one example:  only half of the headcount at DCS is used for front line case workers.  Perhaps if systems and processes were improved the head count can be redirected to front line case managers instead of non-case carrying personnel?

And while we are at it, let’s stop the finger pointing and instead start supporting the DCS Director, the staff and especially the case workers who are doing the front line work.  When I go to a Diamondbacks game, at the beginning of every third inning they have first responders and military stand to be acknowledged.  That is terrific and when those folks stand, smile and wave to the crowd, they are proud of their service.  How about in the 6th inning, we have all front line workers who care for our children including; case workers, case aids and school teachers stand up and acknowledge the work they do to make our state great.  These are folks that have tough jobs that few of us have the skills or the willingness to do.  Let’s start by showing appreciation for them and the work they do for years and years to help our treasured asset … our kids.  Talk about rooting for the home team!

I am not a politician so I don’t care to understand why politicians or the media play the finger pointing game.  But let’s stop.  There is no more important asset to a business than its people, and that businesses have programs to take care of their employees and key staff.  Let’s take a similar with child welfare and rally as a community around the kids that are in care and support them with energy that will result in meaningful change, not to sell newspapers, win a campaign or to keep a job but to create a system that will enable them to thrive.

Have you ever seen a successful crew team?  Crew teams row as fast as they can to win a race across water.  Who wins in crew?  The team that has the best coordinated process and works together at the same time and in the same direction.  Let’s take a lesson from crew teams and start working together instead of against each other and develop an accountability system, better processes and treat our children as our most treasured resource.  Who knows, maybe in five years Arizona can be recognized across the country as a state where we care and value children more than anything.  That could be great for business development too!

Child Welfare in AZ is at an All-Time Low Point and We Must Hold People Accountable For Change

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:

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. 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)
  2. 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).
  3. 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)
  4. Increase permanency for children in care without increase reentry  (there are two measures in the Oversight Committee Dashboard that can be used here). 
  5. 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.

Stop Talking and Pointing Fingers … It’s Time to Just Care

This past week the Arizona Child Welfare community was abuzz with the newly published report on the status of the Arizona Department of Child Welfare by Chapin Hall. In my 14 years as a foster parent the exact same things could have been said about CPS or now DCS every one of those years. Nothing has changed a bit, except the fact that because of a recession and growth in our state the numbers have grown and perhaps gotten even worse.

The recommendations in the report were vague and ambiguous. There is nothing in the report that provides a clear path for DCS leadership to act upon. There are not specific, implementable action items to draw upon nor clear metrics to measure their progress against.

What would have been helpful would have been a recommendation that included key steps, metrics to account for progress and a timeframe from which if followed, these steps would product favorable outcomes. Even something as simple as “follow these three steps and you will have 3,000 less children in care in 18 months”. Where is that report?

Instead, we got another report from bureaucrats who specialize in pontificating and not doing the hard work of building, executing, measuring and being accountable for their actions.

The report is accurate and they did a commendable job of interviewing and gathering feedback, but there is nothing new. We need a roadmap to future success, not a story we can tell about our past failings.

So why does this keep happening? I think it is simple, because no one with the authority to do so cares enough to make it happen.

Last night I volunteered at the new DCS intake center. This is the place where kids that have just been removed go before they are placed with another of their family members or with a foster family or in a group home. To start, I fed and changed a two day old baby, changed a three day old baby and handed her off for another volunteer to feed and then held a two month old drug exposed baby who wouldn’t stop crying.   It was sad.

Then, older kids started showing up so I moved down the hall to help with them (which I was probably better suited for anyway!). That started by helping towel off a two year old who had to get a quick bath because he threw up on himself due to the anxiety of the ride over to the center. Then I made a bunch of macaroni and cheese dinners, crackers and soups with a few juice boxes. We played a little. And then …. My heart melted.

It was bedtime and I was asked to help my new buddy “E” get his pajamas on to get ready for bed. He looked at me with big scared eyes and nervousness and asked why he needed pajamas. I told “E” so he could go to sleep. He then sheepishly asked me why he was going to be sleeping there. I couldn’t tell him why …. and my heart than sank.

I’ve always said that what makes for a great parent is the willingness to put the child’s best interests ahead of their own. This ensures that a child always gets the best of their parents.

That doesn’t happen in foster care. First of all, the children’s parents have already dropped the ball. Then they come in to care and sadly, no one puts their best interests at the front of the line. The real reason why “E” needs to sleep at the intake center is that we don’t have enough people in Arizona who care enough to make sure he never has to have that experience, or if he does, that it would be less of an intrusion in his life and hopefully, less stressful.

We need politicians and a community that care more about children than their own self interests. Until then, we will get more bureaucratic analysis and no substantive changes.

Arizona Politicians Don’t Love Kids

OK, maybe I am paraphrasing Rudy Giuliani here, but after a great deal of consternation and lost hope, I have come to a new conclusion that as a whole, politicians in Arizona just don’t care about kids. It might be better said that it is obvious that kids are just not a priority for Arizona politicians.

It’s not that politicians don’t love children; as many seem to be very good parents, pay attention their kids and I am sure, love their children immensely, it is however, becoming more and more obvious that caring for our most vulnerable children beyond those in their own household is just not a priority.

In my 14 years of being a foster parent, I always tried to be optimistic and believed that it would get better and have been involved in many ways trying to be part of the solution. The time may have come to where I have “jumped the shark” and no longer believe that it can or will get better.

In most cases, our system continues to only become worse. There are more kids in care, more kids not receiving basic services they need to thrive in their younger years and there is really very little being done about it via our politicians. Our system is broken and there is no sense of urgency to do anything.

It has become so bad that last month that New York-based Children’s Rights organization came to town and filed a lawsuit on behalf of all the kids in care. This not some frivolous lawsuit to make a point, they want to hold the Department of Child Safety accountable for providing basic services to kids in care. Seriously? It is so bad that folks from outside our own state believe there is grounds for a lawsuit? This is bad news folks! Not only does is say how poorly we are caring for our children, we have to spend valuable resources defending against it when we should be focusing on world class child welfare that would be the envy of other states!

So why am I so frustrated?

Nearly a year and a half ago, after discovering how poorly we were managing cases coming in to Child Protective Services, our former governor and leaders decided that forming a new cabinet level department and department separate from the unwieldy Department of Economic Security would be the best move. And where are we today? More kids in foster care in Arizona than any time before, they are staying longer in care, receiving fewer services while in care and there is not one single bright spot that can be identified anywhere in this system as a result of these changes. Outcomes remain shameful and kids are suffering because of it.

So in the last month, our new governor decides to bring in a new director to lead the charge. I suggested to him on the campaign trail and then again through his organizing committee that he look across the country and find a person who has a proven track record of success in this area, that we needed a person with a long history of leading change, turnarounds and was fully engaged in other successful child welfare programs somewhere else. Distressed companies do this often and search for CEO’s who have experience and a successful track record for running similar businesses so I believed it was a thoughtful recommendation.

Instead, he decided that the right person was a former police officer who was the person who identified the problem investigations in the first place. Greg McKay, the new director is a wonderful guy. He has a heart the size of the Grand Canyon when it comes for caring for kids. He is tough, gets things done and works hard. Director McKay will work his tail off to be successful at DCS and he will put his heart and soul in to the effort. However, he has to learn on the job. He has to learn on the job at a place that is severely broken and which historically has not enjoyed the support and resources that it needs to do the job that needs to be done. Every morning I wake up and pray that the new team is successful. But let’s be honest, if you are a child in foster care, and the state that put you there doesn’t see you as a priority, then what are the chances of your life improving in the state’s care? My guess is that we are talking slim odds for the 17,000 kids in foster care.

I will continue to do my little part the best I know how and try to provide input when asked. However, I believe it will have to be more like going to a baseball game where I sit in the stands, cheer on my team and just hope that we win. The sad part is that thousands of kids strike out in Arizona because of the lack of priority politicians have for them. In baseball, the millionaires just go home to their hot tubs. The difference is just sad. Very sad.

Hey DCS … Show Us The Plan!

It’s been a few months since all the politicians and bureaucrats got together for their photo op with the governor to tell us all that they have solved the problem of foster care for Arizona. They patted each other on the back for creating the Division of Child Safety (DCS) and claiming that they were going to finally create the funds for taking care of Arizona’s most vulnerable children. So where are we today? From every account I have heard, not very far. I thought we were promised transparency in this process. Where is the promised transparency? More important, where is the plan?

Children are still sleeping in offices, families being torn apart and dozens of new children entering the foster care system every day. I have talked with the DCS Director and he shared with a group of us the progress he has made in the call center. Good stuff from what I can tell. But where is the actual plan for creating a functional agency? Where is the accountability? And more important, where are the changes that will turnaround our broken system?

I can’t find an answer.

We are in the midst of elections for all the statewide offices. Our next governor will inherit this quagmire. No one governor or legislature specifically owns this problem for lack of action because they all have done so.   Our leaders have let the lack of planning and accountability of all those folks. put us in this situation. It is years in the making and can’t be fixed by “hoping” it changes. If someone doesn’t step in front of this fast moving freight train, it is going to overrun our state and will become one of the most costly, unplanned line items in future budgets.

No citizen wants to see taxes increased or wasteful spending on the part of our government. The only way to avoid either of these is with sound planning. It is how successful businesses move forward. They set goals, they develop detailed plans, communicate those plans to all their constituencies (employees, suppliers, partners, etc.), create metrics for measuring their progress and then hold everyone involved accountable for their part of delivering that plan. It happens every day, around the world in businesses, governments and non-government agencies. Let’s see the plan for DCS on how they will turn this around now!

No plan is perfect and seldom have perfect execution. But DCS has embarked on an important journey. It is a journey that will affect thousands of families and vulnerable children. It will affect millions of tax payers. If you were heading on a journey, don’t you think it would be wise to have a roadmap to get there? If you don’t, it will take longer cost more and perhaps you won’t even reach your destination.

So DCS, show us the plan for your journey!

Arizonan’s deserve to see the plan and know the metrics and hold you accountable. No more closed door meetings. No more veils of secrecy. Just show us the plan. Then Arizona can stop being one of the worst places in America for a child to grow up and instead, focus on growing our economy and making this the greatest place to be in America.

If the taxpayer is the boss, I don’t believe this is too much to ask.

I Want To See The Transparency!

This past spring when Governor Brewer signed in to law the abolishment of the old CPS and created the new Department of Child Safety, there was a promise of increased transparency and more involvement from the community in developing the new agency. One could argue that the development of the laws had all the input of a mushroom farm … folks tucked away high in the Executive Building talking to themselves. We accepted that they would get enough input to make the right decisions on the promise that as they started work, the overall community and specifically, foster and adoptive parents, would be involved in how the new agency operated.

So here we are in the midst of election time. Our politicians are spending time telling their constituents about how terrible their opponents are and why they can govern better than another and all the while, someone is hiring, staffing and putting in new processes for the Department of Child Safety. But who is watching their work? Who is ensuring that this work is driving meaningful change and not just pushing the rock along the road?

The previously established CPS Oversight Committee has not met since the lawmakers met to create this new law. There has not been another Town Hall since the process begun. The one caveat is that I have seen or heard of the new Director, Charles Flanagan, attending some meetings with foster and adoptive parents.

So at the end of the day, where is this promised transparency?

When I think of “transparency” I think of words like; clarity, clearness, openness, accountability and candor.

No matter your political persuasion, have you heard any of these types of things from the new Department of Child Safety? What has changed? What will change? What will not change? What assurances do any tax paying Arizonans have that the added funding that has been allocated to this new department will generate a return on that investment?

Taking care of our most vulnerable children is too important to wait and wait and hope that something is going to change. We must demand change and we need to see what the path to creating that change will be.

This is important work. It’s too important to allow the Dog Days of Summer get in the way of communicating what has been learned, what progress has been made and some indication of what steps will be taken in the next 60, 90, 120 and 365 days to re-make our child welfare system.

All I am asking for is the transparency that was promised. Simple communication will go a long way. Articulating a solid plan will go even further!

Your politicians want your vote in the coming weeks. Tell them you want transparency for the new Department of Child Safety in return. It’s only fair!