February 5, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Finally, in Arizona, it’s come to this (Arizona Daily Star, 2/4/15). According to a lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court in Phoenix, the state’s child protective system actually has succeeded in putting vulnerable children at greater risk than they’d be in if they were just left alone. The suit is by 10 children placed in foster care by the state against two officers of the state Department of Child Safety and the Department of Health Services. It seeks certification as a class action.
That of course is a direct outgrowth of draconian budget cuts ordered by the legislature back in 2012. According to the lawsuit, those cuts resulted in sharp reductions is services to families that were at low or marginal risk of abusing or neglecting their children. Those services often were able to provide needed training to parents that avoided the need to remove children from their homes and place them in foster care. Absent those services, the number of children placed in foster care skyrocketed from about 10,000 in 2007 to almost 17,000 as of September 2014.
And, as we know, foster care is scarcely a panacea for kids. Studies have demonstrated that children in foster care are at greater risk of physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and psychological injury even than are children in moderately abusive families. But in Arizona over the past years, it’s far worse than that. The same budget cuts that poured unprecedented numbers of children into foster care simultaneously curtailed oversight of those children and services to them.
"That’s a big part of what’s driving these problems," Bill Kapell, lead counsel for Children's Rights in New York, said. The nonprofit legal group is among those representing the plaintiffs. "More and more children are being brought into state custody, but the level of services is not increasing in a corresponding way."
The lawsuit, which names as plaintiffs 10 foster children ages 3 to 14, said the agencies failed to address ongoing failures. Among them:
- A severe shortage of physical, mental and behavioral health services for children in care resulted in foster children being denied needed services and increasing their risk of psychological deterioration.
- There was "widespread failure" to conduct timely investigations of maltreatment reports on children in state custody.
- A sustained shortage of foster homes forced children into foster placements far from their families or into group homes and emergency shelters.
Here are some of the lawsuit’s specific allegations:
Defendants are well aware that the following structural and operational failures continue to plague the state’s child welfare system:
- A severe shortage in and inaccessibility of physical, mental and behavioral health services available to children in state care. As a result, far too many children in state foster care custody do not receive the health care services they desperately need and all children in state care are subject to an unreasonable risk that they will suffer physical and emotional harm and deterioration while in the state’s care.
- A widespread failure to conduct timely investigations of reports that children have been maltreated while in state foster care custody. As a result of the state’s deficient investigation practices, children in state foster care custody are placed at an undue risk of suffering physical and emotional harm while in state care.
- A severe and sustained shortage of family foster homes. As a result of this shortage, children in state foster care are emotionally harmed and subjected to an unreasonable risk of harm by being placed far from their families and communities, separated from their siblings, and forced to experience disruptive school changes.
- A widespread failure to engage in basic child welfare practices aimed at maintaining family relationships, such as placing siblings together, placing children with their biological parents on a trial reunification basis, coordinating visits between children in state foster care and their biological families, and having caseworkers make regular visits with the children’s biological parents to monitor progress toward family reunification. These failures subject children in state foster care to an unreasonable risk of suffering emotional harm while in state care. Moreover, as a result of these deficiencies, children are subjected to unreasonable delays in being reunified with their families, causing them to suffer further emotional harm.
That last item includes issues I’ve written about before. Keeping families together is almost always better for children and far cheaper than tearing them apart. Yes, sometimes kids need to be taken out of homes for a time and yes, some parents are simply unfit for the job. And again yes, many foster parents provide good, stable, loving homes for kids in need. But for children’s welfare and that of the public purse, foster care — particularly permanent foster care — should be a last resort. Far too often caseworkers use it as the default response to even minor cases.
And then there’s the fact that child protective caseworkers routinely ignore fathers as placement alternatives when mothers are found to be unfit to care for their kids. In 2006, the Urban Institute found that caseworkers even attempted to contact fathers in fewer than half of those cases. Three years later, the Ninth Circuit, that covers Arizona, ruled that to be a violation of fathers’ civil rights. The case is here. It’ll be interesting to see if Arizona has been violating the precedent laid down in Burke vs. County of Alameda. I won’t be surprised if it has been.
One lesson here is that cutting child welfare budgets is not only wrong in the short term but in the long term as well. The theory that states can do more with less turns out to be wrong every time. The same thing happened in Texas with similarly shocking results. If the Lone Star state isn’t expecting a lawsuit like the one in Arizona, it should start doing so. Children immediately suffer from the cut in services that means marginal parents are less likely to get help with their parenting issues and are therefore more likely to abuse or neglect their kids. Long term, that results in a huge influx into foster care that itself tends to be worse for children than parental care, albeit with exceptions.
But since legislators seem to care more about state budgets than about the state’s children, maybe they’ll notice the fact that cutting spending ends up costing the state more, not less. Look at the almost 70% spike in foster care in Arizona over four years and know that paying foster parents is an expensive proposition. Add to that the increased need for services for kids traumatized by separation from their families and placement with strangers and you have a double whammy — a situation that’s bad for children and the state treasury. It’s hard to screw it up any worse than that.
As is so often the case, one of the best cures for the depredations of state governments and other institutions is the civil suit. Beyond question, the state’s resources that go into paying lawyers to deal with this case and the settlement or judgment that inevitably will result, will add yet more to the bill that’s coming due because of the legislature’s ill-considered decision to chop child protective budgets to the bone and beyond. Maybe, just maybe, someone with the power to do something about children’s welfare will learn a lesson from this disaster.
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