House committee advances bill that would put tougher reporting requirements and oversight on Department of Child Safety.
PHOENIX — The Arizona agency whose job is protecting our most vulnerable children is coming under fire for not moving fast enough to rescue runaways in its care.
A House of Representatives committee on Monday advanced a bill that would add a new layer of oversight on the Department of Child Safety.
The oversight is needed, critics say, to ensure that DCS follows through on a law enacted last year that imposed reporting requirements when a child goes missing from a group home.
“I am tired of papering my office wall with pictures of dead, sex-trafficked and abused children,” Republican State Rep. Barbara Parker of Mesa told the House Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee.
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Under a Parker bill that became law last year, DCS should notify a child’s family within 24 hours after the child disappears.
When 15-year-old Damien Wilson ran away from his group home last September, no one told his mother.
“It took them 11 days to notify me that they had found my son,” Joie Wilson Lambson said in a interview before the committee hearing. “He was found deceased at a gas station.”
Speaking through tears, she said: “I didn’t really get to say goodbye to my son.”
The Department of Child Safety reported that 108 children in its custody at the end of last year were runaways.
Parker’s new bill, HB 2479, puts more stringent requirements on DCS’ reporting on missing children, as well as tougher oversight.
If the Legislature concludes DCS hasn’t complied with state and federal law, a third party could be brought in to manage the recovery of missing children.
A provision on third-party oversight was removed from the 2023 bill after Gov. Katie Hobbs threatened a veto.
“We want to send a big huge notice to everybody that if one of our children goes missing, as a state, we are going to look for them and we are going to find them,” said Anika Robinson, a foster parent for 16 years and an advocate behind several bills over almost a decade.
“We are going to mobilize every resource available just like it would be if my own child went missing.”
Chris Gustafson, legislative liaison for DCS, told the committee that the agency had cut the number of runaways in half in the last five years. Two caseworkers will focus on missing children, he said.
“We are working actively to implement every part of this law,” Gustafson told the House committee. He noted that the law took effect Oct. 30.
“I appreciate that Rep, Parker doesn’t feel like it’s fast enough, but we want to get it right. “
The House committee went ahead and advanced Parker’s tougher bill to the full House, on a bipartisan vote of 11 ayes, with four Democrats voting “present.”
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