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CHILD SAFETY

Arizona foster care review boards need more information: Auditor General

Posted 7/9/23

PHOENIX - The Department of Child Safety is not providing some information to local foster care review boards, leaving volunteer board members without data they need to help determine the permanent …

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CHILD SAFETY

Arizona foster care review boards need more information: Auditor General

Posted

PHOENIX - The Department of Child Safety is not providing some information to local foster care review boards, leaving volunteer board members without data they need to help determine the permanent status of more than 11,000 children in out-of-home care, according to a new state report.

Auditor General Lindsey Perry said the boards - there are 123 across the state at last count - monitor what DCS has done to carry out a child's case plan for achieving some permanent status, whether that is return to a parent or terminating parental rights. They also provide findings and recommendations to juvenile courts judges who make the ultimate decision on what happens to children who have been removed from their homes.

But in a report to state lawmakers, she said some DCS caseworkers did not comply with the agency's policy requiring them to attend a board's case review sessions. That prevented some local boards from conducting complete reviews of children in foster care.

Perry also said the ability of the boards to get information has been hobbled by a 2-year-old computerized system designed to track all cases as well as the failure of caseworkers both to keep those records current.

She said, though, that the fault is not entirely with DCS.

Perry said that the Administrative Office of Courts, which is responsible for getting the information from DCS to the volunteer boards, didn't get some of what they requested because they had made errors in making the requests from the automated system.

Perry said it all impairs the ability of the boards to do their jobs.

In a written response, DCS Director David Lujan said he agrees with the findings of the auditors and will implement their recommendations. He specifically said there will be additional training and supervision and, as appropriate, "progressive discipline guidelines for supervisors when there are staff performance issues.''

Foster care review boards were established by the Legislature in 1978 in response to concern that foster children were being "lost'' in out-of-home care and staying too long in temporary placement.

There is at least one foster care review board in each county, with several in the more populated counties. The five volunteer members on each board are appointed by the court and are supposed to represent the racial, ethnic, social and economic groups of the county in which they serve.

Board members are legally required review at least once every six months the case of each child who remains in out-of-home placement and provide a report to the juvenile court within 30 days.

All that goes to the role of boards in ensuring that there is some effort being made to achieve some permanent status for children rather than allowing them to simply languish in foster care. And that specifically includes a target date by which a child can be returned home or placed for adoption or permanent guardianship.

To do their jobs, Perry said, boards need to review the actions of DCS. That includes whether reasonable efforts were made to prevent the child's removal from home in the first place and whether remaining at home would be contrary to the child's welfare.

The boards also make findings and recommendations about whether the out-of-home placement continues to be necessary as well as that the placement is "safe, appropriate and the least restrictive.'' And they also ensure there is a written case plan to establish an appropriate permanency goal which outlines the tasks for both the child and the parents and whether they are following those tasks.

But what the boards need to do that, the report says, is the cooperation of DCS.

Perry said DCS policy requires caseworkers to attend local board case reviews - or at least arrange for their supervisor to attend in their place. But she said that isn't the case.

Auditors picked two days to review where there were 124 case reviews scheduled. They found that caseworkers attended just 86 of those.

There were another 16 where the caseworker did not attend but notified AOC of their absence and provided a statement with case updates. And in 22 cases no one attended or notified AOC.

The information caseworkers have, Perry said, is important.

"Caseworkers can provide information and perspectives in case reviews that may not otherwise be available to local board volunteers,'' she said, information they need to make findings and recommendations to juvenile court. And she said this is more than academic.

In one situation where a caseworker did not attend, the child under review actually had been hospitalized for suspected physical abuse prior to their first out-of-home placement. She said that meant the board had no current information about the child's health conditions or the status of any criminal investigation against the parents.

And to make her point of how valuable caseworker attendance is, Perry cited a situation where the caseworker did attend a meeting and provided the local board with some information it did not have, like the child's current placement and target date for achieving permanency.

"Further, the caseworker was able to inform the local board that the child's parents had stopped participating in services that were required for them to be reunited with their child,'' she said, information the local board would not have known because it was not in the case documents they had received. Perry said that enabled the board to include the parent's lack of participation in its findings and recommendations to the juvenile court.

But it's not just the actions or inactions of caseworkers that can hamper the ability of boards to do their jobs. Perry said board members also have to get the information they need.

DCS began using its Guardian system in early 2021 which is designed for caseworkers to manage and store information about individual cases. It is that system that is used by the AOC to provide the local boards with what they need.

But Perry said a review of 13 cases from around the state for two specific dates checked showed that the Guardian system did not provide AOC staff a complete report in any of those situations. And in some cases, she said, the caseworkers' direct supervisors noted that up-to-date information was not stored in the system.

"Additionally, the supervisors did not document taking additional action to hold the caseworkers accountable for creating an up-to-date case plan in Guardian, such as noting a deadline by which the case plan should be created or following up with the caseworker,'' Perry said. All that, she said, is important.

"Without complete information about the cases of children in out-of-home care, local boards may not be able to fulfill their statutory responsibility to review these cases and submit complete findings and recommendations to the juvenile court,'' the report says. And that can mean the boards cannot assess progress made toward the child's case plan goals.

Perry said none of this should be a surprise to DCS, citing two meetings last year of a special oversight committee at the Capitol.

"Legislators expressed concern that local boards were not receiving case plans and that volunteer local board members were discouraged because of their inability to get the information they need to perform their duties,'' she said.