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Lawmakers consider tightening oversight of Department of Child Safety | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey


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In a debate over how long the Arizona Department of Child Safety should be allowed to continue, a state representative denounced the agency at a sunset review hearing Wednesday and two legislators voted against recommending the agency’s continuation.   

 Lawmakers from the House and Senate’s Health and Human Services Committees took opposing stances on how long the troubled agency should be allowed to continue to best enact change.   

 Committee chairs Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, and Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Goodyear, suggested a four-year continuation, which came as a shock to Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, who said the committee had loosely agreed on six years before the hearing.   

 State agencies undergo sunset reviews in which lawmakers can decide whether to continue their operation for up to 10 years. In each legislative session, multiple agencies are reviewed according to 12 “sunset factors.” This includes topics of evaluation such as purpose, effectiveness, willingness to work with the public and ability to resolve complaints.  

 Agencies typically get the 10-year continuation, but there have been cases in which troubled agencies are put on a shorter oversight period, and sometimes the sunset review process becomes political.   

 Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, and Rep. Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, both voted against the agency continuing at all.   

Parker said a severe lack of oversight has caused DCS workers to “break the law and not be held accountable,” and condemned a deputy director for being unable to say how many foster children were currently missing in the state.   

“As far as continuation, I can’t sleep at night and I can’t live with this,” Parker said. “To continue an agency where I know crimes have been happening.”  

Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, recommended a two-year continuation. If legislators are required to vet themselves for their positions every two years, Borrelli said it is only fair that underperforming state agencies undergo sunset reviews just as often.  

Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said a short continuation period would further limit the ability of DCS to function smoothly and address concerns.   

“When we renew an agency for only two years, we’re asking them to do about four times as much work as they would have if it was what we have been doing, an eight-year continuation,” Epstein said. “Are we going to quadruple the budget to allow for cutting all our agency continuations to be so drastically reduced? I don’t think that’s the right way to go.”   

Epstein and Gonzalez maintained a six-year continuation period would be best to allow the agency the opportunity to enact change under their new Executive Deputy Director, David Lujan.  

Last month, Shope and Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, jabbed at DCS for removing too many children from their homes and alluded to Wednesday’s hearing as an opportunity for legislators to air their grievances with the agency.   

Shope said he will be outspoken against children suffering further neglect upon entering the system.   

 “Families are breaking up, more divorces, drugs, alcohol, some things we’ve dealt with forever and there are a lot of new things,” Farnsworth said. “I think the system’s overwhelmed quite frankly, they need to slow down and not take as many out.”   

Every 10 years when DCS is up for continuation, Shope said similar conversations arise whether the agency should encourage keeping children in their homes is the best practice.   

“Here we are as lawmakers trying to figure out what that healthy balance is,” Shope said. “I know that the Auditor General report that we received on the agency was not one of the best I’ve ever seen. So, I know that there will be a lot of questions.”   

Farnsworth cited last month that 80% of children are taken from homes due to neglect, to which he asked, “What is the definition of neglect?”   

 Wadsack posed that question Wednesday.   

Senior Performance Auditor Tanner Weigel provided the definition as defined by the Auditor General’s office.   

“Neglect includes the inability or unwillingness of a parent, guardian or custodian of a child to provide that child with supervision, food, clothing, shelter, or medical care,” Weigel said.   

Neglect can also include exposing a newborn prenatally to certain drugs or substances that weren’t part of the mother’s medical care, Weigel said.   

 Wadsack said her constituents who were parents of children who were taken by DCS had experience with being unable to report abuse allegations against DCS employees, calling it a “one way street.”   

 “There is absolutely nothing that a parent can do to put neglect or abuse allegations against a DCS investigator or DCS employee.” Wadsack said. “It never goes the other way.”  

 Shope reminded the group to remain on the audit topic, which he repeated multiple times during the hearing.    

Auditor General Director Jeff Gove presented the agency’s issues highlighted by the sunset review process.   

The Auditor General’s final sunset review report on DCS highlighted the agency’s failure to implement prior recommendations from special audit reports, including recommendations having to do with court report timeliness and quality, Gove said. There were 103 recommendations made in those areas, Gove said.   

As of July 2023, Gove said the department has only fully implemented 62% of the Auditor General’s report recommendations that were shared from 2016 to 2021.   

Gove said slow investigation processes by DCS staff may have allowed licensees to continue operation with “unhealthy or risky environments” that do not meet standards.   

The investigation also found a “department culture of not wanting to take punitive action” out of fear of reducing the number of facilities available to foster children, Gove said.   

DCS Cabinet Executive Officer David Lujan – who assumed the position in April 2023 – assured committee members the agency is going to follow through on all recommendations made by the audit and legislators.   

Lujan said Attorney General Kris Mayes told him the statute that governs when staff can report or investigate cases is defined to only authorize investigation of cases where family members or people in a child’s home are committing abuse. Group home employees “do not meet that definition,” he said.   

Shope said he plans to introduce legislation this session that will change that if it passes.   

Additionally, the sunset review revealed that the department failed to ensure nine foster home applicants met background-check standards – such as fingerprinting – prior to issuing a license, the report reads.  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

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