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Az GOP takes aim at the Department of Child Safety, citing missing children | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey


Lawmakers grilled the new head of the
Arizona Department of Child Safety Wednesday during a lengthy debate
over an audit of the agency as lawmakers ultimately decided to recommend
reauthorizing the agency for just four years instead of the maximum 10. 

As part of the periodic sunset
process for state agencies, lawmakers are tasked with evaluating and
determining how long a state agency’s operations should continue before
the next review. State law limits extensions to 10 years,
but lawmakers have historically extended state agencies for eight years
at a time — a figure that coincides with legislative term limits.

After more than five hours of
testimony during a sunset review hearing, something all state agencies
face at least once a decade, lawmakers landed on a four-year
continuation, much to the dismay of some lawmakers who wanted shorter
and longer continuation periods.

DCS was created in 2014, amid
controversy over how the state was handling large caseloads and cases
that were found to have been not investigated.
At the time, the work was handled by Child Protective Services, which
was a division of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, and DCS
was created by the legislature as part of a series of reforms to child
safety. 

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu
City, contended that DCS has operated under “lackadaisical  leadership”
and suggested that the agency be reauthorized for only two years. 

“Every two years, we are reapplying
for a job,” Borrelli said of himself and other lawmakers, who stand for
election every other year, adding that DCS should be held to a similar
standard. The idea was first put forward to the committee by Sen. David
Farnsworth, R-Mesa, who spoke to the joint committee during the public
testimony part of the meeting. 

Farnsworth, a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory that believes a Satanic global cabal trafficks children for sex and torture, has long contended, without evidence,
that DCS is complicit in missing children and has alluded to the agency
taking part in sex trafficking. Farnsworth previously admitted to the
Arizona Mirror that he did not fully grasp the statistics on missing
children he was citing. 

Farnsworth, who chairs the Senate
Committee on Transportation and Technology, recently announced that the
committee will now add “Missing Children” to its name and priorities. 

Democratic members pushed back on the
idea of extending the agency for less than the standard eight years,
worrying about the workload it will create for the Arizona Auditor
General, which performs an audit of state agencies before every sunset
review, and what that could mean for the budget’s of DCS and the rest of
the state. 

“Are we going to quadruple the
[Auditor General]’s budget?” Senate Democratic Leader Mitzi Epstein
wondered, adding that a two-year continuation would mean state auditors
would need to once again start investigating DCS right away and move on
from other scheduled audits of other state agencies. 

But Republican critics of the agency said that was a trivial concern.

“I am more concerned about missing
dead and abused children than the Auditor General’s workload,” Rep.
Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, said.

Audit finds oversight lacking

This is the very first sunset review of DCS since it became a stand-alone state agency. 

Auditors focused on a few key areas
during their investigation, with an emphasis on how the agency oversaw
licensing of foster and group homes, as well as a new document
management system that was recently implemented. 

One area of the audit focused on how
DCS handled complaints against foster and group homes, and the auditors
discovered some deficiencies. In particular, they found it could take up
to 100 days for the agency to investigate some complaints, including a
complaint that an employee of a group home assaulted another employee
before fleeing, all in front of the children present. 

Auditors found that DCS had issues
regarding oversight of group homes and their slow pace to investigate
put children in danger. One example given that lawmakers took exception
to was an employee who was found to have been giving marijuana to
children in the group home. 

DCS took over 100 days to investigate. The facility had other previous complaints as well. 

And the auditors concluded that DCS
was wary of any major discipline or doling out punitive measures to
foster and group homes because the agency was worried about losing
placements for children. The department also did not conduct unannounced
visits to the facilities and instead relied on a “corrective action
plan” in which the group home or foster home promised to correct the
action. 

For example, DCS found that the group
home where an employee was giving out marijuana had done enough to
correct the issue because it had fired the employee. 

The department has since started doing quarterly monitoring visits after auditors flagged the lack of oversight. 

Auditors found that the “culture”
around not wanting to lose a group home, issues with the departments in
house document monitoring system, a lack of written policies and a lack
of internal supervisory oversight led to the issues. 

DCS agreed with the findings and told auditors they would implement changes. 

DCS has only recently changed
leadership, with DCS CEO David Lujan stepping into the role
approximately six months ago. Lujan, a former lawmaker and a child
welfare advocate, was appointed by Gov. Katie Hobbs. 

Lujan avoided the Director Nomination
Committee which had previously grilled and not recommended several Hobb
appointees as the Governor announced she’d be no longer sending
nominees to the new committee last year. 

Parker contended that any policies
put in place by Lujan could be legally challenged because he is leading
the agency without being approved by the Arizona Senate. Senate Republicans are suing Hobbs over her decision to evade Senate confirmation.

Parker also voiced dismay that the
options to terminate, revise or consolidate DCS were not presented to
her, and she was only given the option to reauthorize the child welfare
agency. 

“So I vote no to any continuation,” Parker said.

Lujan acknowledged the challenges the agency faces and the history of problems with child welfare in Arizona. 

“We still have a lot of challenges
and we still have a lot of things to address,” Lujan said, directly
addressing that the department has not fully implemented or started
implementing several key recommendations from previous audits prior to
his tenure. 

The agency is creating special task
forces to look into procedural changes and how they can react better to
certain circumstances such as child deaths and recommendations by the
auditor general. 

Lujan also touted accomplishments the agency has made in addressing other concerns, such as a backlog of over 96,000 documents that were lingering in its document collecting system. 

“I can say that, a year ago, there
were 96,000 documents in a portal, and those documents have now all been
disclosed,” Lujan said. When asked, Lujan said that there was only one
case he was aware of that was impacted by the issue and it is unclear if
the new documents will change the outcome of the case, Lujan said. 

Both lawmakers and DCS agreed that
moving more toward placing children with family members, also known as
kinship placement, is a better option than placing them in foster or
group homes. The department is currently working on creating a program
to help families navigate the kinship placement system in order to
create better outcomes especially as the state continues to lose foster homes. 

While lawmakers Wednesday did not
fully agree on the continuation period or how to help the agency
continue to grow, one thing was universally agreed upon: Protecting
Arizona children is key. 

Committee Chair Sen. T.J. Shope,
R-Peoria, said that he understood the points of both his fellow
Republicans who wanted a shorter timeframe and Democratic members who
wanted to give the agency more time to course correct. 

“These things have a history of
repeating themselves,” Shope said, reminding committee members of a
similar situation that occurred during Gov. Bruce Babbitt’s tenure more
than 40 years ago. Shope said that he’d never argue for the termination
for DCS, adding that “in this case we just have to do a better job.”

Auditors will follow up with DCS in six months and provide the legislature with an update on their progress. 

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