An April 27 interview with Department of Child Safety Director Greg McKay by Governing.com (“How Arizona Fixed Its Broken Child Welfare System in 2 Years,”) raises new questions about McKay’s accuracy in reporting agency successes, and his claimed background as a foster parent.
Regarding agency turnover, McKay said “When my team took the lead, the turnover rate in Arizona was about 35 percent…Our turnover rates are now in the mid-20s.” However, the most recent numbers on the agency’s own website show that the rolling 12-month total agency turnover is 30.34%, and the turnover for case workers is 30.50%. A review of the agency’s Semi-Annual Financial and Program Accountability Reports shows that when McKay first took office, the annualized turnover rate for case workers was 25.7%. Within 6 months of McKay taking over leadership of the agency, caseworker turnover jumped to 35.4%, and has not been below 30% since.
The Governing.com article also repeated a claim, originally made by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey when appointing McKay, that one of the credentials that qualified McKay to lead the child welfare agency was his experience as a foster parent. Sources outside the agency have alleged that McKay was never a licensed foster parent, and did not complete the extensive application, interview, training, life safety inspection, or annual renewal requirements required of Arizona foster parents to obtain and maintain a license under Arizona law.
When ADI contacted the Department of Child Safety to research the allegation and inquire about the extent of McKay’s foster parenting experience, the agency refused to confirm whether McKay had ever been a licensed foster parent. After the ADI continued its inquiries, DCS released this statement from McKay: “For the privacy, safety and protection of the child my wife and I fostered, no information will be released. Upon the consent and age of majority of that child, we can revisit this request. Thank you.”
Given that both the Governor’s Office and DCS websites still state that McKay was a “foster parent,” the agency’s refusal to confirm whether McKay was ever licensed and for how long is legally unsupportable under Arizona public records law, since those questions speak to statements already in the public record, and don’t compromise the confidentiality of any children who may have been placed with McKay.
But how is the agency doing?
DCS press releases have touted the resolution of the agency’s years-long backlog and the reduction in the investigation caseload. A case is designated as “backlog” if 60 days have passed since the last data entry about the case into the agency’s computerized record-keeping system. The most recent DCS monthly report on the agency’s website shows that since McKay took office, the agency has reduced the number of backlogged cases from over 15,000 to under 1,000, resolving a longstanding record-keeping issue.
In addition, the agency reduced the number of open child welfare reports from over 30,000 down to 6,400 in two years, which slashed the investigative caseload, making the number of cases carried by each DCS investigator more manageable.
That’s just the number of open investigations. According to the DCS monthly report on the agency’s website, as of March there were still 17,028 children in foster care. March numbers from the Attorney General’s Office show that there are 19,549 Arizona children under court supervision in 10,287 open dependency cases, which includes both those children placed in foster care, and those remaining at home with their parents but still being monitored by DCS and the court.
But those aren’t the only metrics worth reviewing to see how the agency is faring. Although delayed record-keeping no longer plagues the agency, a different kind of “backlog” has emerged. Children in Arizona’s foster care system are staying there longer, and the agency is relying heavily on shelter placements even for very young children.
According to the agency’s Child Welfare Reporting Requirements reports published on the DCS website, between March 2015 and September 2016, the number of children remaining in foster care between 13-24 months increased by 21% and the number remaining in foster care longer than 2 years increased by 22%. In March 2015, only 43% of children in foster care had been there more than 13 months, but now, more than half (52%) of the children in foster care have been in foster care longer than 13 months.
The agency has also increased its reliance on extended stays in shelter, even for very young children. The agency’s Child Welfare reports show that the number of children spending more than 21 consecutive days in shelter has increased by 17% since McKay was appointed, from 900 to 1054, and the number of those children who are age 5 or younger increased by 27%, from 172 to 218. Also, between December 2014 and December 2016, the average length of a shelter stay increased from 89 to 103.3 days, a 16% increase.
The number of children between ages 0 and 6 placed in a group home has increased by an alarming 56% since McKay was appointed, from 68 in December 2014 to 106 in December 2016. This isn’t the result of an overall increase in the foster care population. In spite of an initial jump in foster care numbers, perhaps attributable to early leadership change at the new agency, the total number of children in care has increased by only 2% since McKay took office.
But runaways from foster care are on the rise as well. The number of reported runaways increased by 11% between March 2015 and September 2016, a number that does not include children listed as having “no identified placement.” In March 2017, 494 children fell into the “no identified placement” category, meaning that nobody had entered their placement data into the agency’s computerized record-keeping system.
But Are Children Safer?
The agency continues to struggle with identifying which children are actually at risk for maltreatment. Of the children in foster care in September 2016, over 12% had been previously removed some time in the prior two years. The 2015 Child Fatality Review Report showed a 12% increase in maltreatment deaths between 2014 and 2015, and the maltreatment death rate rose from 4.6 to 5.3. In 2015, 80% of the children who died were under age 5. The 2016 report should be issued in late summer.