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Don’t give up on DCS yet! What the agency needs is inspiring leadership

Dear Legislature: Don’t give up on Arizona’s children and the Department of Child Safety yet, please.

At a recent Joint Legislative Budget Committee meeting, legislators expressed disappointment and dismay, combined with a little disgust and anger, about the lack of progress being made under the leadership of the governor’s choice for Department of Child Safety, Director Greg McKay. Sen. John Kavanagh said the Department of Child Safety needs a “retired seasoned professional administrator” to oversee Director McKay.

Timothy Schmaltz, president of the National Association of Social Workers Arizona Chapter

Timothy Schmaltz, president of the National Association of Social Workers Arizona Chapter

The child welfare community has expressed frustration with McKay and the department for some time now. His current command and control style has alienated staff and many in the community, and has generated a culture of fear while yielding few positive results. Current DCS leadership seems to be more focused on blaming the past rather than inspiring change and pragmatically spending money the Legislature appropriated for in-home services and full DCS staffing.

All the frustration does not address the ongoing chaos of the rising foster care caseload, growing demand for services, persistent growth in the backlog of cases, massive staff turnover and caseload churn.  Community agencies report some of their staff is leaving children’s work because of how they are being treated by DCS.

We don’t question McKay’s convictions, dedication or his sincere desire to protect children. He is reportedly a good man. But these good qualities do not seem adequate to the task of building a new agency for protecting children and serving families, when even a supportive legislator calls McKay and his leadership team into question. This ineffective management is now jeopardizing more resources and much needed reforms at the DCS.

The department’s new budget request is laudable for what it includes, but also questionable for what it is missing and certainly demands scrutiny. Stabilizing a qualified highly trained professional workforce must be a first priority. The huge turnover rate exceeding 35 percent is costly and unacceptable. Stopping this huge caseload and workload churn is essential to addressing quality work and expedited permanency planning for the huge numbers of children and families who need help.

The Legislature needs to recognize and honor the dignity, complexity, and professional nature of the child welfare work itself in DCS and in the community. We estimate that front line child welfare salaries need to increase by at least $10,000 per position to help retain staff, stabilize the workforce, reduce caseloads and get on with effective permanency planning for children and their families. This same formula holds true for community provider agencies that also need to keep highly trained staff to provide the prevention and therapeutic healing services needed to help families thrive.

More targeted funding is needed to stabilize the workforce. But to have actual impact it will need inspiring, professional, effective leadership – as Senator Kavanagh noted should be a condition of more funding.

Political leadership comes and goes, as we have seen. Only a dedicated highly accountable trained professional staff with adequate resources and tools grounded in best practices can insure sustained quality services and safety for children and families.

Legislators understand what is needed. But their frustration, distrust, and anger must not stop further reforms and funding. The governor must lead with urgency to provide proven, inspirational, knowledgeable, and effective leadership to achieve authentic positive results for Arizona’s most vulnerable children.

The current false starts, struggling leadership, and lack of results must not prevent the governor and Legislature from trying again and again until they get it right.

— Timothy Schmaltz is president of the National Association of Social Workers Arizona Chapter

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