One of the guiding principles listed on the Arizona Department of Child Safety website is: “All Arizona’s children are safe and protected from harm.” But DCS’s actions make clear that the agency has a funny definition of the word “all.”
This legislative session, DCS successfully lobbied for a law, a floor amendment to SB 1539 introduced by Sen. Nancy Barto, that encourages the agency to cherry pick which children they will protect. The law gives the agency the chance to argue in court why children who have had run-ins with the juvenile justice system should not have the opportunity to be cared for by a foster parent.
Worse yet, DCS got the Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey to approve, via Barto’s amendment, a restriction on the juvenile courts. This new provision prevents judges from placing young people who have criminal records, no matter how minor, into foster care or a DCS-run group home for at least two weeks, until there’s a hearing where DCS attorneys can argue the agency shouldn’t be responsible for the child.
DCS believes that taking care of children who have juvenile justice involvement should be outside their purview. But in any other case where a child’s caregivers are unwilling or unable to care for them, it would be DCS’s legal responsibility to provide such care.
Think about this hypocrisy: if a parent refused to care for a child after the child was released from a juvenile detention facility, the parent would almost certainly be brought to court by DCS for neglecting their parental duties. The state in this scenario has license to drag the parent before a judge, require services to make them “better” caregivers, and brand them as “bad parents.” Yet, when DCS engages in the exact same conduct – abandoning a child in need – they can now do so without repercussions.
DCS Director Greg McKay has argued that some children are too dangerous to be placed in foster care settings with other children. Yet DCS, which is obligated to care for these children and knows full well that these children do not have other caregiving options, has offered no alternative plan.
What will happen to the children who have been involved with the juvenile justice system and do not have a home to return to? DCS has no concern for them – it is simply washing its hands of these vulnerable children. Child advocates have made it clear that many of these children will end up homeless, living on the streets, alone. This seems like a perfect recipe for pushing more people into the adult criminal justice system.
DCS’s position is particularly disturbing given the broader context of bias and racial disparities built into the juvenile justice system. In Arizona, black, Latino, and Native American children are more likely than their white counterparts to be referred for formal juvenile court processing. Children of color are also more likely than white children to be sentenced to detention instead of diversion.
In other words, the only reason many children of color are at risk of being rejected from the state agency that’s supposed to care for them is because of a discriminatory system, not their conduct.
But again, DCS doesn’t seem to care.
Apparently DCS, Ducey and most Arizona legislators don’t see the irony and shame in Arizona officials walking into courthouses across the state and accusing parents of abandonment when the state is now guilty of the same offense. At this point, DCS might as well update its website and stop pretending to care about “all” of Arizona’s children.
— Shanta Trivedi is a clinical teaching fellow in the Bronfein Family Law Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Kathy Brody is legal director of the ACLU of Arizona.