Arizona child welfare case backlog continues to grow

Published: Sep. 25, 2015 at 9:36 PM MST|Updated: Nov. 20, 2015 at 10:44 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Arizona revamped its agency to protect children last year after abuse and neglect cases fell through the cracks, but the agency can't keep up with investigations.

Department of Child Safety (DCS) Director Gregory McKay told an Arizona legislative committee the backlog of case is growing.

It was his job to dramatically reduce the backlog when he was hired near the beginning of the year.

The number of backlogged child welfare cases was 14,946 as of June 30, 2015.

The goal was to reduce the backlog to 1,000 cases by that date.

McKay said there are 52,000 new child welfare cases each year, too much for the agency to handle with the staff it has right now.

McKay said backlogged cases outnumber DCS workers by a ratio of 15-to-1, even though millions of dollars have been flowing into the agency.

Those who work with children and families in the system said there is a solution, but it will take time, resources and commitment.

Child welfare experts said this is a problem that started in 2009 when the state slashed programs that help families on the verge of crisis - programs that prevent child abuse and neglect.

Plus, Arizona has cut poverty programs, even as more Arizonans live in poverty and with the instability of poverty that can lead to abuse.

The agencies that work with those children and families see first-hand what has happened.

Casa de los Ninos Crisis Nursery CEO Susie Huhn said it has taken years to get into this mess, and it will take years to get out of it.

Huhn said the state didn't pay attention to the worsening situation until 2013 when former Governor Jan Brewer focused on it.

"It didn't get there overnight. We have a huge problem in our state with our child welfare system that happened over many years. It happened because of very drastic deep cuts to a lot of safety net programs for vulnerable and poorer families. And it's going to take us many years to turn it around and it is going to take resources. Without the  commitment and the resources, it's not going to be able to be turned around," Huhn said.

While other states are reinstating their prevention programs in the wake of the recession, Arizona is not.

Now in Arizona, more children than ever are being removed from their homes.

There are more than 18,000 children in foster care.

That's a record, and the number continues to grow.

The state is working to recruit more foster families, but Huhn said focusing just on foster homes is not the solution.

She said the goal should be to prevent child abuse and neglect, and to keep families together, not tear them apart.

Huhn said the situation can be fixed. They know what works.

She said prevention is less costly financially to the state and less costly emotionally to children and families.

Huhn said a child abuse prevention program, such as family visitation, costs up to $5,000 per family per year and are proven to work.

"They don't enter the child welfare system, nor do they generally enter the behavioral health system or the juvenile justice system. But to have just room and board for a child in foster care--not to mention all the other costs as far as special education and the other educational costs, physical care costs, room and board alone could be $30,000 a year," Huhn said.

As Huhn put it, we know the math and we know the science.

She said there's plenty of expertise in the field.

Huhn said it's a matter of committing to the problem with a long-term vision and with the time and with the resources to save Arizona's children.

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