Once again, the Department of Child Safety has fallen behind on child abuse and neglect investigations.
The latest department report reflects unfilled staff positions, a high number of open cases, and many children in out-of-home care. DCS has set benchmarks for the number of employees and the number of cases they manage. Currently, the number of cases far exceeds these benchmarks, and the number of workers falls short.
At the beginning of this year, DCS had 95 backlogged cases, which are open and inactive investigations. Now, the number has shot up to 1,879 cases, exceeding the benchmark of 1,000 set by the Legislature.
Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, said it’s extremely troubling to see the department fail to meet benchmarks.
“Those are children whose lives are potentially at risk because they are not investigating the way we expect them to,” Butler sad. “It’s extremely scary because we saw this happen before and we know that these numbers could creep up.”
The benchmark was brought about by a backlog that reached more than 16,000 cases from 2013 to 2015, which were not cleared for two years. In 2017, the backlog finally fell below 1,000 with the help of outside contractors and even bringing caseworkers out of retirement to assist employees.
The Legislature also set benchmarks on the number of its workers, the number of children in out-of-home care, and the number of open reports. All the benchmarks are exceeded except for the staff numbers. The staff is 164 below the benchmark and 343 of the employees are still in training.
Department Director Mike Faust attributed understaffing to a nationwide shortage of workers. He also emphasized the difficulty of casework and a high volume of incoming reports of abuse and neglect. The department previously requested and received money from the Legislature to pay their employees more, but the compensation has not been enough to retain those caseworkers.
Faust said of increasing reports of abuse and neglect that the department expects to see another spike in cases next month as children return to school after the holidays and mandatory reporters – those who are required by law to report such cases, including police officers and teachers – begin to see them. He also said the reports are especially “egregious” with a high number of murders and suicides.
Open reports are about 3,000 cases over the benchmark and the number of children in out-of-home care is about 861 cases above the benchmark.
Faust anticipates shuffling resources into Maricopa City, Pinal County, and the West Valley.
“Where you see huge amount of tract homes going up invariably, you’re going to have needs that arise.”
Former Republican legislator Kate Brophy McGee pointed to a shortage of foster parents and caseworkers, and to the steady stream of people moving to Maricopa County as issues outside of the department’s control.
“You talk to any employer across the country and they can’t find people to do these jobs, and in this case, you’ve got an influx of reports that far exceeds capacity.”
In 2014, former Gov. Jan Brewer and the Legislature restructured the child safety system by moving the agency formerly known as Child Protective Services from the Department of Economic Security to directly reporting to the Governor’s Office. The agency then became Department of Child Safety and the Legislature infused it with funds to hire caseworkers and chip away at the backlog.
Brophy McGee sponsored legislation that formed DCS and said she has confidence in Faust and the transparency of DCS.
Faust said that Covid has affected abuse and neglect reporting negatively.
“Mandated reporters make up a large part of our reporting, so law enforcement is number one, educators are number two,” said Faust. “Now when kids come back in person you see those concerns are now manifesting and they may have gone longer without being addressed so, they’re needing us to intervene.”
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee gave the DCS report a unanimous favorable review of the statistics at their last meeting on December 14.