November 18, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Arizona’s struggles to reform its child protective system are back in the news and, as before, that news isn’t good (Phoenix New Times, 6/17/15). The linked-to article is one of the best I’ve read in ages. It’s gratifyingly long and full of information that’s both new and provides background and context. It’s balanced, but doesn’t use that balance as an excuse to avoid judgments. Well done, New Times.
When we last saw the Arizona system for protecting children from abuse and neglect, it was in a shambles. The press had for years been critical of the agency and then-Governor Jan Brewer had vowed changes that were in fact made, including scrapping Child Protective Services altogether. Shortly thereafter, the news broke that an astonishing 6,500 cases of reported abuse or neglect had been simply ignored by caseworkers, given a rating of “NI,” i.e. “not investigated” and shoved aside.
That pleased no one and the new Department of Child Safety’s Director, Charles Flanagan set out to investigate those cases. Needless to say, that required the time and attention of personnel who normally would have been attending to day-to-day operations. Unsurprisingly, while the backlog of NI cases was being whittled down, new cases were coming in that caseworkers not involved in NI investigations had to handle. Predictably, they fell behind.
Sure enough, with too few caseworkers to handle the load, kids in danger fell through the bureaucratic cracks. One of them, Cloud Gerhart, was the child that convinced the new governor, Doug Ducey, to fire Flanagan, who’d only been on the job for eight months, and replace him with Greg McKay, who has only a background in law enforcement.
Two-year-old Cloud Gerhart weighed just 17 pounds when the Department of Child Safety finally removed him from his home in September 2014. The first call to authorities had come before he was even born, after Cloud’s mother, Megan, tested positive for marijuana during two prenatal appointments.
Between the time of his birth and the day DCS took him away, the state’s child abuse hotline received six more calls expressing concern that Cloud was skinny and hungry, that Megan drank and smoked a lot, and that their trailer in Sierra Vista was dirty and full of trash. Documents show that caseworkers visited the Gerhart residence and discussed parenting classes with Megan more than once, but no one thought the situation ever warranted removing the baby.
Fortunately, Cloud was finally taken to a hospital and received proper medical care. He was released to another family member and his mother and her boyfriend were charged with child abuse and neglect. But Cloud’s case was the cause célèbre that got Charles Flanagan fired.
Now, how anyone could expect Flanagan or anyone else to remake a dysfunctional agency within eight months is a mystery. No one could. So Flanagan’s firing looks more like political expediency on the part of Governor Ducey than any attempt to improve DCS. So how has McKay fared since he was appointed the department’s director?
That’s anyone’s guess. Lawmakers and others overseeing the department were distressed recently when McKay spoke before them.
"I don’t think I’ve seen the morale any lower than it is today," committee member Bill Owsley said, looking directly at McKay. Owsley, who litigates dependency cases, told McKay that from what he’s seen and heard, DCS employees have no sense of where the agency is headed or why leadership is making particular decisions.
State Representative Debbie McCune Davis, who sat next to Owsley at the committee meeting, made it clear she was disappointed in McKay’s lack of data…
"We don’t know what has changed under Director McKay," she adds, "but simply making the transition from Flanagan to McKay did nothing to fix [DCS’] problems."
And, in the time-honored tradition of child welfare agencies across the country, caseloads are rising. That’s at least in part because, under McKay, employees are either being fired or quitting in droves.
Few frontline employees last beyond three years, and there are never enough caseworkers to meet demand…
McKay took over amid promises to solve his predecessor’s problems, but his critics say he has done the opposite. In the past four months, McCune Davis’ office, she says, has been getting "all sorts of phone calls from all sorts of people who have been pushed out of the agency or have left voluntarily and just can’t believe what’s going on. We hear a lot about people leaving the agency out of frustration, about firings or other changes at the top." She says employees are "afraid to make decisions based on professional judgment" because they’re "scared of becoming scapegoats."
Worse, many of those people headed out the door are the ones in whom the “institutional memory” of DCS resides. They’re those with the longest service who can train new employees in best practices, who’ve seen the problems and have an idea of how to solve them.
It’s not just the few people in the top tier of leadership who have been replaced. People have quit at all administrative and operation levels, say employees and child welfare experts.
"When they [fired] two of our program managers, Gene Burns and Nanette Gerber, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. The two of them knew everything about the agency," says Jane, who worked at DCS for 11 years before quitting in early June. ("Jane" asked that New Times not use her real name because she works in a related field and fears retribution.)
Burns and Gerber, who oversaw case-management supervisors in the Southwest and Central regions, respectively, had both worked at DCS for decades and were fired without explanation in early March.
So of course, caseloads are once again rising and, to a great extent, those expected to handle them are less experienced caseworkers. They now have less experienced supervisors to help them.
Much of the current problems and the so-far-unsuccessful attempts to solve them began in 2008 when the national housing bubble burst, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped to half its former high and unemployment touched double digits. The Arizona Legislature saw falling tax revenues and rising deficits and decided to slash funding for social services including children’s welfare. That of course meant staff layoffs, which in turn meant increased caseloads, further staff turnover and sharply rising backlogs of NI cases.
Fewer caseworkers meant more horror stories of children who died in abusive households. But at the time, no one thought to connect the dots. The enthusiasm for blaming caseworkers ignored the fact that there were far too few of them to do the job of protecting every child brought to their attention.
But by far, the biggest spike in the number of kids in foster care occurred in 2009. Following the 2008 economic crash, families in Arizona were hit with a double blow: rising unemployment rates and slashed social services. The number of children in foster care increased 47.3 percent from March 2010 to September 2013, rising to 15,037 from 10,207. The most recent data, which is from February of this year, puts the number of kids in state care at 17,438.
Kris Jacober, executive director of the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, a nonprofit that provides support and services to foster families, sees a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the 2009 budget cuts and the sudden increase in kids in foster care.
"Those cuts took away Family Builders [a collection of social services and financial assistance programs established in 1998] and they took away caseworkers," Jacober says. "They took a lot of support out of the system for foster families and for DCS workers.
"I don’t understand why everyone is surprised that six years later our system is such a mess," she adds.
Just so. And how long it’ll take to clean it up is anyone’s guess. No one knows if Greg McKay is the man to do the job, but for now, it’s the same old story — insufficient funding, too-high caseloads, too few caseworkers, too little pay, too-high turnover of personnel and press reports of children, known by DCS to be at risk — dying at the hands of abusers.
What is known, however, is that two kids have died on [McKay’s] watch in the past month. In Surprise, 3-year-old Alexandra Tercerro was pronounced dead on May 23 after being taken to a hospital covered in bruises and weighing only 15 pounds. And in Mesa, 21-month-old Joylynne Giebel died on June 5 at the hands of her stepfather, six months after DCS had been alerted about a potentially abusive situation.
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