Children in Arizona are entering the child welfare system due to abuse, neglect or abandonment in increasing numbers, necessitating an increase in qualified out-of-home care placements. Unfortunately, more foster families are exiting the system than entering, and that spells trouble for Arizona’s children.
According to the most recent Child Welfare Report from the Department of Economic Security, 679 foster homes in Arizona closed during the reporting period, while only 663 new ones became licensed. This number is a small improvement over the previous reporting period (April 2011 through September 2011), which saw 681 homes close and 582 new licenses, but both sets of numbers boil down to the frightening reality that the gaps in the system are widening under the feet of Arizona’s children.
Locally, the situation is not as critical as in higher-populated areas like Tucson and Phoenix. As of March this year, Safford’s “bed need” was between three and five, and Thatcher was short only one to two beds. The rest of the county appeared to be flush, due either to fewer reports and removals of children or else more available foster homes. The number of children removed from Graham County homes encompassed only 0.6 percent of the total statewide number of 12,453. There is still, however, a need.
Authorities agree that a family environment, like a foster home or relative, is best for children removed from their homes, particularly for babies and toddlers. As many as 80 percent will have that opportunity, but since children ages 1 to 5 encompass the majority of out-of-home placements (34.7 percent), and many of them have special needs or are part of a sibling group, an idyllic family home can be difficult to find. According to the Child Welfare Report, the number of children ages 0 through 6 placed in group homes increased by 11 statewide between March 2008 and March 2012.
The reasons for foster families’ closure with the system vary, and the majority (30.4 percent) close because they have decided to adopt the child they have fostered. Of those, 65.9 percent only spend a year or two with their adoptive placement before adoption is put into motion and finalized. Many families, however, run into trouble while trying to navigate the system.
“All throughout the (child welfare) system, you can’t get what you need to help the kids you’re caring for,” said Kris Jacober, a Phoenix foster parent and head of the Arizona Association for Foster and Adoptive Parents, in a recent interview with Mary K. Reinhart of the Arizona Republic. “There aren’t the resources.”
AzAFAP aims to increase placement retention by empowering families with information regarding rights and resources, connecting them to others in similar situations and advocating for necessary improvements in the child welfare system. Event calendars and information are available at azafap.org.
Better access to resources is vital because many children in the child welfare system have a number of serious behavior issues. The sheer number of children living in out-of-home placements as of March 31 (12,453) would make for a daunting challenge for a service provider with money and qualified staff to spare. With both Child Protective Service workers and behavioral health providers operating on a regular basis with overstuffed caseloads and malnourished funding, traumatized children have trouble receiving what they need when they need it.
Lack of timely behavioral health and medical services can set into motion a cycle of perpetual placement moving, when the caretaker of a child with major behaviors feels unable or unwilling to make the placement of a long-term arrangement. Some children are so affected by the intensity of abuse they have suffered that they become unable to form meaningful relationships or respond to services, and these children typically go through multiple placements. The average number of placements for children in Arizona’s child welfare system is 2.6.
Aside from the lack of security children feel when shuffled from one shift-worker to another in a group home, as opposed to the security of a family situation, placement in a group home or shelter costs the state hundreds more than a regular foster home. For example, a typical foster home costs about $25 a day, whereas placement in a residential treatment facility can run as high as $350 a day.
Clearly, reform is needed. According to kidsarewaiting.org, a Pew Health campaign that worked toward improving the well-being of children in foster care between 2004 and 2009, fewer children would be in foster care today if states were allowed to use federal child welfare funds to provide prevention services (avoiding foster care for some children) and to support postfoster care services to help others leave foster care quickly for safe, permanent families by supporting successful reunification with their parents, adoption or legal guardianships. Savings created by the decreased need for foster care could be reinvested by states into a continuum of services to keep children safe and stengthen families.