Photo by Howard Fischer, for the Miner.
PHOENIX – Inadequate reports and failure to attend some hearings by the Department of Child Safety may be delaying some Arizona children getting permanent placement according to a new report on the agency.
But DCS Director Greg McKay said he will not implement many of the recommendations the report says would hep fix the problems.
McKay said, though, it’s not that he thinks they’re all superfluous. But he told Capitol Media Services that he has to focus the limited time and resources on the top priority of reducing the backlog of uninvestigated cases and putting more kids into permanent placement.
But Auditor General Debbie Davenport said in her report to state lawmakers that she thinks some of the current policies and practices actually may be getting in the way of those goals.
Davenport said juvenile court judges are responsible for making permanent placement decisions for children who have been removed from their homes. And she said DCS is required by law to provide written reports and in-person information at court hearings before a child can be reunited with parents.
“However, we found that the department has not always provided required court reports to juvenile court judges in a timely manner, consistently included sufficient detail in its court reports, or clearly presented progress toward goals in updated court reports,’’ Davenport wrote. “Without timely and adequate case information, court hearing decisions may be postponed.’’
Davenport cited one report which did not include information about efforts by DCS to facilitate visitation or contact with siblings.
“Another omitted information about the child’s well-being, such as education and health information,’’ she wrote. “Additionally, one case file contained multiple court reports that lacked information about the reasons for siblings being placed in different out-of-home placements and also lacked detailed caseworker conclusions regarding case progress and areas for improvement.’’
Davenport said this isn’t just her staff looking for issues, saying eight juvenile court judges who auditors interviewed “expressed similar concerns regarding the level of detail provided in court “One juvenile court judge explained that when the court is deciding whether a child should be reunited with a parent, a court report is more useful when it contains detailed information about the case, such as the parent’s level of substance abuse,’’ Davenport wrote. “For example, a court report that states that the parent failed three urinary analysis tests in one month is not as helpful as a report that includes the dates associated with the tests, what the lab detected in the urine, and which tests, if any, the parent missed.’’
McKay said caseworkers use a standard template “that provide all of the mandated information’’ in determining what to tell judges.
“Now, that’s not to say that situationally judges might get something and it lacks information and they’d rather have a better accounting of the case to make decisions,’’ he said. “And I respect that all day.’’
Davenport, however, said 13 of 38 reports to courts that auditors reviewed lacked the required detail, “which may not only suggest that caseworkers did not follow the templates in preparing these reports, but that there may be gaps in the supervisory review of these reports as well.’’ She said DCS told her staffers that one factor contributing to the inadequate reports is turnover among caseworkers who have expertise about the case and who were experienced in preparing court reports.
McKay, however, rejected Davenport’s recommendation that DCS develop and implement a system of supervisory review to ensure that the reports have the information judges need.
“The department’s policy and standardized court report templates provide the required information based on the current standards identified in state statute and administrative code,’’ he wrote.
And he rejected another proposal to require that DCS ensure that supervisors are trained on the guidance.
“Training is not necessary,’’ McKay wrote. “Additional guidance will not be deployed.’’
McKay said what’s lost in all this is the progress he said the agency has made since Gov. Doug Ducey tapped him in early 2015 to head the agency.
He cited the backlog of univestigated cases, those where a caseworker had not looked in on a child or even touched the file in 60 days. McKay said it was 16,200 last year; now it’s in the 4,000 range.
Similarly, he said progress is being made to reduce the number of children in foster care.
“In the last10 months, more kids went home to safer homes or adoptive homes than came into the system for the first time in seven years,’’ McKay said. “Those are great milestones.’’
Still, he said, the systems for dealing with children who need help remains “under duress.’’
“So when I get an audit and that audit suggests that I need to either create processes that don’t exist based on some research of other people’s studies ... we have to measure that against the plan, the progress we’re making, and if that is, in fact, going to be a value add or a detractor from current progress.’’ he said.
Davenport also said that DCS policy requires caseworkers to attend reviews conducted by the Foster Care Review Board either in person or by phone to answer questions and provide updated information.
She said a 2015 audit found caseworkers attended about 65 percent of reviews each month, telephonically or in person.
“More recent analysis performed during this audit found that caseworker attendance at FCRB review had not improved,’’ Davenport wrote.
McKay did not dispute that DCS policy requires caseworker attendance, whether by phone or in person, at FCRB hearings.
He said, though, that is “not aligned’’ with federal and state law. Anyway, McKay brushed aside Davenport’s concerns that the failure to attend harms children.
“There is no indication that increased caseworker attendance reduces the time to permanency,’’ McKay said. And McKay said caseworkers “often’’ provide statements when they cannot attend because of conflicts with court hearings, often on the same case.
Davenport did say that DCS is doing a better job in finding and placing children with relatives than the national average. And she said the agency earlier this year directed all staff to document all search efforts.
But Davenport said there is no formal process to ensure that staff comply. So she is recommending a formal monitoring process to ensure caseworkers are documenting the required information.
Even this, however, was rejected by McKay, who cited that better-than-national-average standing.
“There is no indication that the documentation of the ‘Locate Efforts’ case note type impacts the percentage of children in kinship placements,’’ he wrote.
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