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Legislator wants more oversight of Department of Child Safety | The Daily Courier | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey


PHOENIX — A veteran state lawmaker says he wants more oversight of the Department of Child Safety, saying the agency is taking far too many children from their homes and then losing track of some of them.

“Children are being kidnapped, murdered and are being forced into the sex-trafficking world because of state negligence,’’ said Sen. David Farnsworth.

“If state government uses law enforcement power to forcibly remove children from their parents’ homes because of unsafe conditions, then state government must also provide those children with a safe haven, both physically and emotionally,’’ the Mesa Republican said. “Otherwise, these vulnerable children may be inflicted with more harm than good.’’

Farnsworth said all that is the result of inexperienced caseworkers and a system that seems build on the idea that it is better to err on the side of removing a child rather than keep him or her at home with family.

“I think the system is overwhelmed, quite frankly,’’ Farnsworth said. “They need to slow down and not take quite as many out.’’

This isn’t the first time Farnsworth has raised the question of whether DCS is removing too many children — and then losing them.

“I am confident that some children that DCS are losing are ending up in sex trafficking,’’ he told the Arizona Mirror in 2019, though he acknowledged he has no proof.

That same year he told the Arizona Republic he fears children in foster care are being abducted by a worldwide trafficking network and sold into slavery.

“I have no proof of that, but those are my darkest fears,’’ he said.

And three years ago in a video on YouTube, Farnsworth detailed the number of children who had been taken by DCS who were listed as either missing or runaways.

“We need to all be concerned,’’ he said. “If DCS can’t keep track of their children, they need to stop taking them out of the home.’’

But what’s different now is that Farnsworth’s vow to “hold DCS accountable and increase oversight to ensure the safety and well-being of Arizona’s children’’ is part of the plan adopted by the Senate Republican majority as its agenda for the 2024 session. And that gives it the blessing of the GOP lawmakers who control the Senate.

The most recent report from DCS says there were 28 children through age 17 who had been taken from their homes so far since July 1 in the last full fiscal year who were listed as missing or abducted. Another 115 were listed as runaways.

That is out of about 9,900 who are in out-of-home care.

All that, Farmsworth said, is the result of the fact that the minority of children DCS removes from a home are cases of abuse. He puts the figure at 20% of all cases.

“I think we would all agree that children should not, must not be left in abusive situations,’’ Farnsworth said.

“However, 80% are taken because of neglect,’’ he said.

DCS, in its own most recent report, says neglect amounted to 57% of the calls so far this fiscal year. Most of the balance is physical abuse, with some cases of sexual or emotional abuse.

But Farnsworth said that, whatever the numbers, the fact so many are being removed based on claims of neglect is concerning.

“ I would simply ask the question, what is the definition of neglect?’’

That, he said is apparently left to caseworkers.

“I think we’ve got some very diligent people coming right out of college and going into homes,’’ Farnsworth said.

“And, perhaps, they’ve never had a home of their own yet,’’ he continued. “They’re tasked with the responsibility of making a judgment call of whether those parents are appropriate parents or not or whether the state would be more appropriate to take the children.’’

Agency spokesman Darren DaRonco did not address the specific question of whether DCS is removing too many children.

Instead, he said DCS has reduced the number of children in out-of-home care to its lowest level since July 2008. He said the current figure of about 9,900 is half of what it was in 2016.

“We anticipate building upon these efforts in 2024,’’ DaRonco said. And he said one goal of DCS is to expand access to community resources “that meet families’ needs and improve prevention services so children can remain safely at home without DCS involvement.’’

Christian Slater, press aide to Gov. Katie Hobbs said the agency has been working on “right sizing its protective response.’’

Farnsworth is not alone in the view that how DCS is operating needs to focus less on removal.

“We need to make sure that as these folks are making their first contacts with DCS that a punitive measure is not the first course of action,’’ said Sen. T.J. Shope. He is the president pro-tem of the Senate and, as such, a member of the GOP leadership team.

What’s needed, said the Coolidge Republican, is for better training of caseworkers.

“We need to make sure that the people we are sending into homes have an ability to educate, especially in cases of neglect,’’ he said, informing parents that what they are doing could fit the legal definition of neglect. More to the point, said Shope, caseworkers should be telling parents “here are some ways to correct it without having to go through that process.’’

“Once you’re in that system, it becomes extremely difficult, not just for the child but for the families who, at that point, may have had an ‘a-ha moment’ to be able to rectify the situation and get the child back in their home,’’ he said.

Still, Shope said it’s not an easy problem to solve.

“I can’t name a single agency that probably has a tougher job than that agency,’’ he said.

“However, there are significant deficiencies,’’ Shope said, problems that arise when children are removed from their homes.

He cited the case of 9-year-old Jakob Blodgett who was taken from his home by DCS after his father, Richard, was arrested in a drug case.

Only thing is, Jakob had diabetes. And Shope said the child died “because nobody in the group home that he was in knew how to provide insulin for the child.’’

The way Shope said he sees it, once Jakob was in “the system’’ he “suffered even further neglect.’’

Relatedly, he also cited the report of the state Auditor General’s Office that found delays in investigating complaints against licensed foster care home, investigations that are supposed to be completed with 45 days.

But the report said a sample of 30 cases found half that were not finished within that time frame. And in the case of three of the group homes, the completion times were 158, 171 and 406 days, respectively.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have debated the question of how quickly — or slowly — the state acts in removing children from their homes. But it has been, for lack of a better word, a pendulum between extremes.

Prior to 2003, state law spelled out that what was then called Child Protective Services was required to give deference to keeping family units together when deciding how best to deal with allegations of abuse and neglect. That emphasis came after lawmakers concluded the state was moving far too often to taken children from their homes.

That year, however, there were several high-profile incidents of children whom CPS left with their parents ending up injured or dead, leading to changes — and increased removals.

By 2007, the state had increased the rate it was taking children from homes, to the point where the number of youngsters removed by CPS was increasing at a rate 10 times faster than the number of new cases.

Farnsworth, in calling for fewer removals, acknowledged that pendulum swing. But he said finding the appropriate balance of when DCS should and should not act in cases of neglect is difficult.

“I do not have the answer,’’ he said. “But when you’re taking 80% out because of neglect, that is something we need to carefully define.’’

From his perspective, the answer to fewer removals is to strengthen families.

“We need to shift the emphasis away from taking the children out to (instead) supporting families,’’ Farnsworth said.

And he said more money for the agency to hire more staff is not the answer.

“DCS has a budget of over $1.2 billion,’’ Farnsworth said, including state and federal dollars.

“If you divide that between the number of children in case, that’s over $100,000 per child per year,’’ he said. “I don’t believe that’s a money problem.’’

Farnsworth said that is backed up, in his mind, by the decision of state lawmakers, at the behest of then-Gov. Jan Brewer, to take what was DCS out of the Department of Economic Security in 2014 and create the free-standing Department of Child Safety, with a director who reports directly to the governor.

All that came after a discovery that 6,500 complaints to CPS of abuse and neglect had never been investigated at all.

“No more excuses, no more secrets, no more faceless decision makers,’’ Brewer said at the time.

The changes not only restructured how child abuse and neglect cases were handled but also increased funding for new caseworkers.

“In my opinion, we only made things worse instead of better,’’ said Farnsworth who was in the Legislature at that time.

It’s true, he said, that the number of unaddressed cases declined.

“But that’s not necessarily the solution if it’s done too haphazardly, if it’s done because there’s so much political pressure to get it done,’’ he said. “They’re focused on the number of cases instead of on the children.’’

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