Monday, August 2, 2021

Child welfare in Arizona: Don’t believe the spin from the agency where workers called themselves “professional kidnappers.”

The Imprint has a very good story about that new study showing the obscene rates at which family policing agencies investigate families – particularly nonwhite families. 

As you may recall, that study estimated that in two of America’s 20 largest counties, Los Angeles and Maricopa (metropolitan Phoenix), more than 70 percent of Black children would be forced to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation before they turn 18.  (And since the study didn’t factor in income, you can be damn sure almost every poor Black child will face this trauma.) 

Maricopa County also has appalling numbers for later stages in the process.  Nearly 15% of Native American children, nearly 15% of Hispanic children and nearly 20% of Black children will be placed in foster care, according to the study.  In Maricopa County, termination of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) happens at obscenely high rates. In fact, for Black and Native children, no other county studied even comes close. 

That’s what you’d expect from a state where the family policing agency, which carries the Orwellian name “Department of Child Safety,” had an office in which almost all the caseworkers thought it would be fun to wear t-shirts emblazoned on one side with the words “professional kidnapper” and on the other with the words “do you know where your children are?”  (Fun fact: You can now buy matching masks with the same message!) Those workers were fired.  The ones smart enough not to wear their sentiments almost literally on their sleeves remain. 

When The Imprint asked a p.r. person for DCS about the findings in the new study, the p.r. guy he went for what probably would be Rule #23 in “The Official Flack Handbook,” were there such a publication: When confronted by alarming data in a study, say that sure, things may have been bad then, but we’re sooooo much better now! 

And so, we get a DCS spokesman telling The Imprint: 

…the actual maltreatment records from which long-term estimates were derived, covering the years 2014 to 2018, “spanned a time in Arizona history that experienced the highest child removal rates ever.” 

“Since that time, we have made vast systemic improvements, including reducing entries into care and reducing our out-of-home care population by 24% ...” 

But the problem with “Rule #23” is it only works if newer data are not available – so we have to take the agency’s word for it.  Tough luck, DCS: In this case, we have the data. 

The data show that for the last two years of the study period, 2017 and 2018, Arizona took away fewer children than in the two years before the study period began 2012 and 2013.  So no, those five years actually weren’t the worst in Arizona history – though they certainly were awful. In fact, Arizona has been in foster-care panic mode for most of the past 20 years – a national record. 

Worse, after the study period ended, somehow, despite all those “vast systemic improvements,” entries went up again. In 2019 entries increased by nearly 9% over the previous year.  And for 2020 – despite COVID – the state’s own data show a figure nearly identical to 2019 and still well above 2018. 

Here are the entry numbers from 2012 to 2020: 

Entries into foster care in Arizona 

2012      2013      2014      2015      2016      2017      2018    2019   2020

10,663   10,790   12,209   12,722   11,729   10,057   9,173   9,607  9,583 

Sources: 2012 to 2019: Administration for Children and Families AFCARS database. 2020: Arizona Department of Child Safety Semi-Annual Child Welfare Reports.

 The 2019 figure meant Arizona tore apart families at a rate 45% percent above the national average that year, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  Maricopa County is worse than the state average.  And, by the way, Pima County (metropolitan Tucson) is even worse than Phoenix. 

2019 also was the year Arizona authorities did this to a family – because a child had a high fever:

 As for the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day – dredging that up is a nice deflection, but it has nothing to do with the study, which tracked the extent of intrusion into families at each stage of the process.  Reducing the number of children in foster care on one day of the year has nothing to do with how many children you tore from everyone they know and love in the first place. 

Indeed, that number can rise or fall for all sorts of reasons unrelated to the extent of “professional kidnapping” in a given state.  It can fall due to a lot of youth aging out of the system with no home at all.  It can fall due to churning – taking a lot of children and sending them home again in a few months, much the worse for the experience. If a child is taken in January and sent home in August, her or his presence in foster care won’t show up when the “snapshot” of children in foster care is taken in September. 

And, by the way, even with the reduction in the snapshot number, in 2019, Arizona still held children in foster care at a rate 20 percent above the national average; again, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. 

The “snapshot number” of children in foster care also can fall if a state is particularly aggressive about needlessly destroying impoverished families forever and rushing the children into the hands of more affluent strangers.  The study found that the rate at which this is attempted in Phoenix through termination of children’s rights to their parents is 17.5 times higher than the rate in New York City. 

So, Arizona Department of Child Safety, tell us again about those “vast systemic improvements.”