Have the Legislature and governor finally given up on Arizona’s children? Is there Department of Child Safety “DCS fatigue?” Have the Legislature’s and the governor’s frustration and disappointment in DCS with its lack of any reliable results for children rendered them powerless to do anything about it?
The questioning at the recent DCS budget hearings was tepid, timid, and tired. The current Republican Legislative budget proposals do not move the department forward. Rather the proposals tread water while children seem to be drowning in the instability and chaos without the resources and qualified professional staff to do their job.
DCS can’t keep qualified staff. DCS has one-third fewer professional staff than their authorized levels (about 950 out of 1,406). DCS has a 36 percent turnover rate for case managers. This means only about a third of the workforce they need is actually in place to do their mission. Caseloads continue to be at least 53 percent above professional standards. Over 21,000 children are in DCS custody and care. The DCS director admits workloads are overwhelming and staff does not have the toolkits they need. Yet the proposed budget offers little in authentic scalable solutions to this workforce and children’s crisis.
There are many viable, feasible solutions for DCS to create life-giving results for children and families. The Arizona Republic’s articles — “4 fixes for Arizona’s broken child-welfare system” — outlined clear directions for significant evidenced based improvements and results.
We offer three additional focused solutions to those four fixes.
• Workforce development must be part of short-term and long-term solutions to close the gap on number of workers with significant pay incentives and benefits. The Arizona Republic article points to stabilization of staff as one of the four keys fixes required. However, without short-term significant increases in salary and benefits and long term workforce development, DCS will never be stabilized. All the professional front line positions probably need $10,000 raises to attract and retain qualified professional staff. With the savings from staff vacancies, DCS should implement the $10,000 raises immediately. Then if staff starts to stabilize and improve DCS should come back to the Legislature for more money with its proven solutions. The Legislature and governor must finally recognize the dignity and difficulty of professional child welfare work.
• Eliminate stigma around poverty and families asking for help. DCS needs increased funding for proven prevention policies and programs or the foster care growth will continue unabated. Almost 70 percent of DCS referrals are neglect related to poverty and substance abuse. The vast majority of child protection is about helping families, not rescuing children from crime. One result of the anti-poor cuts to health and human services is to promote a public stigma against families in crisis approaching the system for help.
• Improve DCS leadership. DCS needs the intervention of the governor to mobilize an urgent community strike force of the best and brightest from the child welfare community, including the universities and community agencies and task them with enough authority to fully address this crisis and stabilize DCS, while Mr. McKay and his staff deal with daily operations. The governor must realize that it is critical he change course and augment the current leadership with additional resources and additional highly qualified, professional, experienced, inspiring child welfare leadership, or this crisis will continue to worsen. And children will continue to suffer needlessly.
Arizona’s children can’t languish in a malaise of more trauma and neglect. Too many children’s lives are at stake with current DCS methods and leadership. Change is necessary. It is not enough to pull children from the fire. The governor must take bold and decisive actions for the sake of Arizona’s most vulnerable children and their families.
Timothy Schmaltz is president of the Arizona Chapter of National Association of Social Workers.