Friday, June 5, 2015

Report: Children in group homes on rise in Arizona

A brief history of Arizona's child-welfare woes

  Mary Jo Pitzl, The Republic | azcentral.com 10:31 p.m. MST May 28, 2015


More than one out of every five children removed from their family home because of abuse or neglect is sent to a group home, the highest percentage in recent history and a reflection of the growing number of Arizona children in out-of-home care.
The latest statistics from Arizona's child-welfare agency show more than 17,623 children were living outside their home at the end of 2014, according to a report released Thursday to a state panel charged with overseeing the Department of Child Safety.
Of those 17,623 children, 21.4 percent are sent directly to group homes, either because the state agency can't find relatives to take in the children or because there aren't enough foster families.
The numbers show a steady increase in the number of children in out-of-home care — 71 percent higher than five years ago.
The sobering report comes as the state fights a lawsuit, filed earlier this year in federal court, charging that Arizona's foster-care system is woefully failing children. And it follows the release last week of a national study that highlighted ways to reduce the number of kids in group-home settings, the most expensive and least stable situation for kids removed from their family homes, according to the Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Joe Jacober, a member of the Child Safety Oversight Committee, said the 21.4 percent figure is shocking, up from 16 percent five years ago. Yet, he said, the committee has never talked about what DCS needs to do to reduce the rate at which kids are sent to group homes. He asked DCS Director Greg McKay to bring the committee ideas.
The Kids Count report noted that group homes are far more costly to taxpayers than foster families. In Arizona, congregate care costs about $123 a day while foster homes cost $23 a day, according to the Children's Action Alliance.
McKay asked the panel for patience as he works to address the agency's many issues. Gov. Doug Ducey appointed him director in February, removing Charles Flanagan, who had been the new agency's director for only eight months.
Thursday's meeting found McKay on the hot seat, as panel members grilled him on everything from turnover and agency morale to the need for more timely statistics on how the new agency — a year old today — is faring.
Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, said McKay needs to provide more data sooner than the semiannual reports the agency favors. She and fellow Democrats in the House have been stymied in their attempts to get monthly data, such as how many calls come into the state's child-abuse hotline, how many children are removed from their homes each month and how many are sleeping in state offices or other emergency placements for lack of anywhere else to put them.
"It's important that we know this agency is progressing," McCune Davis said.
Panel member Bill Owsley, who runs the dependency unit in Maricopa County's Office of the Legal Advocate, said morale is at rock bottom.
"I don't think I've seen the morale any lower than it is today," said Owsley, adding he's been able to hire many of the well-qualified social workers who have left DCS in recent months.
McKay conceded morale has been an issue. The agency has seen near-weekly firings and departures, and said "it might get worse before it gets better" as he tries to change the agency's culture.
There was one bright spot for McKay: Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, praised him for going above and beyond the legal reporting requirements for child fatalities in which DCS is involved. McKay provided details on the case of Alexandra Velazco-Tercerro, a 3-year-old Surprise girl whose parents have now been charged with murder in her death.
"Less than a week following this poor little baby's tragic death, from the information released by DCS, it becomes very clear that multiple jurisdictions and agencies were involved with this family," Brophy McGee said.
That kind of transparency makes it clear DCS is not the "punching bag" for failing children, she said, adding that other agencies, from courts to local and federal law enforcement to the state Attorney General's Office likely had some degree of interaction with the child and her family.
Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-8963.

 http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/2015/05/29/report-kids-group-homes-rise/28135327/