By Terri Jo Neff |
The State of Arizona has paid roughly $6 million in the last three years to private law firms to defend the Arizona Department of Child Safety against multiple allegations of staff malfeasance and misfeasance leading to the neglect, even death, of children placed into the state’s foster care system.
In the meantime, concerns brought forth by the Arizona Auditor General’s Office in 2019 about foster home recruitment, licensure, use, and retention have not been fully implemented by DCS, and there won’t be another status report to the Arizona Legislature until later this year, according to public records.
A nearly 60 page special report to Gov. Doug Ducey and lawmakers in September 2019 outlined six recommendations for improvements within DCS for Arizona’s foster care system. One key area of concern was foster parents who reported feeling excluded from decisions about the children in their care as well as difficulty accessing needed support and pressure to accept foster placements.
There were also several instances in which foster parents complained of being provided “incomplete or inadequate” information about the children placed in their care, something auditors confirmed when reviewing placement packets as part of the audit.
In May 2020, the Auditor General’s Office provided lawmakers with an initial follow-up, at which time it was revealed DCS was still in the process of implementing five of the six recommendations. Steps to implement the sixth recommendation had not been started, according to the audit report, despite the fact it addressed one of the main complaints – the lack of customer service to improve foster parent recruitment and ensure retention.
Instead, DCS was concentrating on developing and launching of Guardian, its much needed new agency-wide database. But when Guardian went live in February 2021, state employees closed off some features of the system to other state agencies, including the State Foster Care Review board and the Arizona Ombudsman’s Office.
In addition, there were numerous complaints from foster parents, adoptive parents, and foster children transitioning out of foster care about late payments for several weeks after Guardian went live.
A November 2021 “second follow-up” report by the Arizona Auditor General at the 24-month period did not get into those problems. Instead, the report to the chairs of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee remained focused on the six recommendations from 2019, of which DCS had fully implemented only 50 percent.
And there was still had no start date in sight for implementing an improved customer service model, according to that report.
Despite the lack of performance by DCS, there will not be another audit report to the Legislature on the foster home concerns until this fall, according to August General Lindsay Perry’s office. That will mark three years after the initial special report.
The six recommendations and findings as noted in the November 2021 report were:
1. DCS should develop and implement a customer service model to improve foster parent recruitment and retention, and engage in continuous quality improvement via feedback to ensure the model’s successful implementation.
But according to the Perry’s staff, DCS reported “it has yet to begin implementing a customer service model because of competing priorities within the Department, such as implementing its new case management system (Guardian). The Department has not identified a start date for implementing this recommendation.”
2. DCS should, as required by Arizona law, provide foster parents “with complete, updated written placement packet information upon placement of children with foster parents.”
The placement packets began being issued by DCS in September 2021 through an online portal for new and renewed placements. However, obtaining feedback on whether the packets were worthwhile was to be included as part of the improved customer service outlined in Recommendation 1. As a result, the Auditor General cannot make any assessments until the 3-year report on whether the placement packets have resolved concerns expressed by foster parents.
3. The Auditor General also recommended DCS undertake an effort to find out why a foster parent closes his or her license. The pre-Guardian database only allows one reason to be entered, even though foster parents fill out a form which allows for marking multiple reasons. According to DCS, this problem will be resolved at some point via Guardian.
4. Already implemented is the Auditor General’s recommendation that DCS develop and implement procedures to ensure contractors and staff adequately handle intake in English and Spanish, including answering or returning phone calls in a timely manner and meeting Department expectations for call quality.
5. Also implemented was the recommendation that DCS implement procedures to ensure contractors maintain websites with information about how to become a foster parent in Spanish.
6. DCS also improved its monitoring of foster home recruitment and support contracts to ensure core contract requirements are being met, such as providing access to respite care and other requirements DCS deems critical to the contracts’ success.