Reports give grim outlook for Arizona child welfare



Mary Jo Pitzl 

An increasing number of reports of child abuse and neglect, a growing number of kids in foster care and a revolving door for a quarter of the children caught up in the child-welfare system, according to two new reports.(Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)
Two reports set the stage for the daunting work facing the state task force charged with reinventing the state's child-welfare agency.
They confirm in numbers and trend lines the continued issues confronting child safety in Arizona: an increasing number of reports of child abuse and neglect, a growing number of kids in foster care and a revolving door for a quarter of the children caught up in the child-welfare system.
The reports -- one from a University of Chicago research institution and one from the state's newly created Division of Child Safety and Family Services -- come as a task force appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer continues work on a plan to create a new child-welfare agency to replace the scandal-plagued Child Protective Services. The task force is aiming for a May 1 deadline to present a draft legislative bill, which then must be vetted by lawmakers.
On Friday, Bryan Samuels, who was a federal child-welfare administrator and directed Illinois' Department of Children and Family Services, presented a sobering picture of the condition of child welfare, using the state's own statistics.
He showed how Arizona is one of only 13 states to see an increase in its child-welfare population over the last decade; Arizona's increase is second only to Texas.
"Over the last 10 years, most states have seen reductions in their populations, and incredible reductions," Samuels told the CPS Oversight Committee, citing California, New York and Florida as leaders in that trend. The common denominator, he said, is these states have made creating permanency for children their priority.
But Arizona's numbers show that "across all age groups, children are getting to permanency at a slower and slower rate," Samuels said.
He couldn't offer an explanation for the trend, since he was looking only at the data Arizona shared with his program. As executive director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Samuels oversees research centering on youth, families and their communities.
His presentation, repeated Friday afternoon to Brewer's task force, reinforced the challenges facing the child-welfare system.
For example, response times to reports of child abuse neglect have increased nearly 300 percent over three years, Samuels said. His report showed the time between when a report comes in to the CPS hotline to when a determination of how the case will be handled had ballooned from 63 hours in fiscal 2009 to 249 hours in fiscal 2012.
The numbers surprised members of the oversight panel, as well as many in the audience.
Charles Flanagan, head of the Division of Child Safety and Family Services, said the numbers were a new and unhappy revelation to him.
"I'd like to thank him for increasing my stress," Flanagan said of Samuels' report. In addition to heading the division, Flanagan is deeply involved in work to create the new child-welfare agency.
Samuels' report also was news to Emily Jenkins, director of the Arizona Association of Human Service Providers. She said she was surprised to learn the statistics come from the state's own welfare agency, since she has unsuccessfully sought similar numbers in the past.
Samuels told the oversight panel that money spent upfront on services for families in stress will likely save money in the long run. If those "front-door" services -- such as counseling and substance-abuse treatment -- are not funded, states are likely to spend a big proportion of their federal Medicaid dollars on medical treatments and drugs, he said.
"The Medicaid data tells a striking story of the cost of abuse and neglect," he said.
Another report, this one from the state's child-welfare division, is a snapshot of six months' activity. Compared to a year ago, it shows increasing numbers of calls to the CPS hotline, of children in foster care and of children removed from homes.
From April through September 2013, there was a 6.5 percent increase in the number of children in foster care, for a total of 15,037. At the same time, the number of new foster homes to cope with this demand dropped.
The semi-annual report also showed the 22,032 reports to the hotline was up nearly 2 percent from a year earlier, and came even as CPS staffers were marking case files "NI" for not investigated.
Another state task force is still plowing through the nearly 6,600 reports that went without investigation, and Brewer's office is awaiting a report from the state Department of Public Safety into what went wrong at the agency, leading to the neglected files.
Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-8963.