Backlog Blues

Arizona is still struggling to keep up with reports of child abuse and neglect

Gov. Doug Ducey has boasted that his administration moves "at the speed of business."

But at the Department of Child Safety, it appears more like business as usual—and in Arizona, when it comes to neglected and abused children, business as usual means a huge backlog of cases.

Last week, state lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle voted to give the latest report from the Department of Child Safety an "unfavorable review" after learning that DCS had a backlog of nearly 15,000 cases of abuse and neglect.

That appalling figure is growing nearly two years after lawmakers created the new Department of Child Safety to avoid similar problems that plagued Child Protective Services.

Despite the name change, officials at the Department of Child Safety are finding it difficult to keep up with reports of neglect and abuse of Arizona's children.

The DCS report reviewed by state lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee last week showed that a backlog of 14,899 cases—meaning that no one had checked in on them in more than 60 days. That's an increase from the 13,024 backlogged cases at the end of June.

DCS had 1,279 employees as of this month—which is fewer than the 1,357 it had in April. The agency can hire 1,406 employees.

And the number of actual caseworkers has dropped from 1,025 at the end of June to 930 in December, although another 274 caseworkers are in training. And at last week's meeting, lawmakers learned that about one-third of the agency's caseworkers have left in the last year.

State Sen. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat, said he was disturbed to discover the number of backlogged cases is growing—and he added that based on the testimony that he heard, the department can't say whether any of the cases involve endangered children.

"We have nearly 15,000 backlogged cases and we don't know if any of the kids are in imminent danger," Farley said.

Farley said that current DCS Director Greg McKay, a former Phoenix police detective who replaced the previous DCS director, Charles Flanagan, at Ducey's behest, isn't delivering the promised leadership—which is particularly ironic given that McKay was the investigator who blew the whistle on the 6,000 uninvestigated cases that led to the revamping of CPS into DCS last year.

"How do you put a guy in place whose only background is investigation and he doesn't seem to know how to handle investigations that he's in charge of?" Farley asked. "I don't expect him to know about prevention programs or management of personnel, but he can't even get the backlog down?"

And Farley said that McKay's decision to send a deputy director Michael Dellner to answer lawmakers' questions last week was "stunning."

"And then the guy they send in Greg McKay's place doesn't have any answers for the questions we're asking, all of which would have been very easily submitted," said Farley, who noted that the same questions had earlier been asked by Joint Legislative Budget Committee staff.

Farley suggested the state could prevent many of the cases of neglect and abuse if lawmakers would fund prevention programs that were eliminated after Republican Jan Brewer became governor in 2009.

An increased number of abused and neglected kids is "what happens when you don't fund prevention programs for six years. You're creating this pent-up problem and you end up putting yourself in permanent triage," Farley says.

The state has also stopped spending general fund dollars to help low-income moms afford childcare so they can work. While the federal government and the state's tobacco-tax-funded First Things First program still provide funding for the childcare subsidies, there were 2,579 children on a waiting list for childcare as of Dec. 11, according to DES.

"But that doesn't show the amount of need out there," Farley said. "A lot of people have just dropped off because they know it's not available."

In the last year of Brewer's term, lawmakers restored some funding for childcare subsidies, but Ducey eliminated it in his budget.

Gubernatorial spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said that Ducey remained committed to dealing with families in crisis.

"This is an area that is very close to Governor Ducey's heart, and he's never going to be satisfied when so many Arizona children are still in need of safe, loving homes," Scarpinato said. "Our office will continue working with DCS leadership and the Legislature on improvement."

Farley said that Ducey's low-key responses to the report suggest child safety is just not a priority for his administration.

"The fact that they didn't seem disturbed by this is really disturbing," Farley said.

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