Arizona child welfare agency marks 9 years since overhaul; is it delivering on its promises?

Monday marked nine years since the state’s child welfare agency got a new name and additional resource following several high-profile child abuse deaths.
Published: May. 30, 2023 at 6:49 PM MST|Updated: May. 30, 2023 at 7:04 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Monday marked nine years since the state’s child welfare agency got a new name and additional resources. The move followed several high-profile child abuse deaths involving kids known to the system. State lawmakers promised transparency and accountability when they created the Department of Child Safety, or DCS. But has it lived up to those promises? Arizona’s Family Investigates sat down with DCS’s new Director, David Lujan.

“We’re keeping more children with their families,” Lujan said. He said that’s their focus. “One of my goals as the director is to be able to, if we cannot keep families together, to at least be able to place children with relatives,” he said.

It hasn’t always been that way. In 2003, Gov. Janet Napolitano pushed a policy of erring on the side of caution, leading to a sharp increase in children taken from their families and put in foster care.

Data shows in 2021 that the rate was more than 60% higher than before it was implemented. However, Arizona’s removal rate is still 75% higher than the national average. There’s also a racial bias. Six in 10 black children in Maricopa County will undergo a child abuse investigation before they turn 18.

Lujan said that needs to be addressed. “We have significant disparities in our child welfare system in terms of populations that are involved in the child welfare system,” he explained.

The agency was rocked by controversy in 2011 when Ame Deal was found dead in a plastic container. She was put there as a form of punishment in the Arizona heat. However, her abuse went unnoticed in Arizona, something a juror pointed out in one of the criminal cases. “Nobody knew this was happening to Ame until she died, and I feel that there are possibly a lot more children out there,” the juror said.

Following Deal’s death in 2014, Gov. Jan Brewer created the Department of Child Safety, its own agency with additional resources. Arizona’s Family Investigates asked Lujan if DCS has lived up to that promise. “Well, I think I have to give some shoutouts to the previous administration that 10 years ago, nine years ago when DCS was created, we had more than 18,000 children in the child welfare system, and those numbers are down to close to 11,000 today,” Lujan said.

But what do child advocates make of it? “Yes, we are making some progress, but there are 12,000 kids in the system, and you still need to be responsible for them, so let’s be responsible for them,” said Luis De La Cruz with Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation.

“When you look at the data and how it’s played out I think it’s questionable whether it’s been as effective as hoped for,” Darcy Olsen with the Center for the Rights of Abused Children said. She points out that according to state data, more kids are dying today from abuse and neglect than in 2012. “What we’ve seen is a 36% increase in abuse fatalities in our state. So children don’t seem to be safer from abuse than they were they were before,” Olsen said.

Advocates said many of these kids and their families are known to DCS. “There are still a lot of areas where we have much work to be done,” Lujan said. “We owe it to the public; we owe it to lawmakers to be as transparent as we possibly can.”

Lujan still hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate, meaning his position as director isn’t official. However, he said he continues to meet with different state lawmakers, hoping they will take it up soon. He said waiting isn’t fair to his employees, who have had four different directors in the last few months.

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