The number of babies and small children waiting in Arizona shelters and group homes for a permanent solution to their disrupted lives is declining, but it may not be fast enough to forestall a lawsuit against the state’s child welfare system.
Maricopa County shelters this month were housing nearly 100 children under age 7, despite a consensus that long stays in shelters aren’t good for abused and neglected children, and that babies generally do best in a home with one caregiver.
The state has established deadlines to require that children under 4 be placed with relatives or in foster homes, limit shelter stays to 21 days and reduce the number of foster children by 5 percent.
“We’re still using the shelters as we develop other alternatives,” said David Berns, director of the state Department of Economic Security, which oversees Child Protective Services. “We put down very, very aggressive goals. If we don’t make it . . . we’re still moving in the right direction.”
Berns says his department was not motivated by threat of a lawsuit. However, the changes followed letters of concern and a series of meetings last year with Carole Shauffer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, a public interest law firm that has successfully sued to close shelters in Los Angeles County and elsewhere.
Shauffer said the progress is welcome, but seems to have been haphazard. A meeting planned for last week was canceled when the department didn’t provide updated information about young children in care, she said. The center will consider filing suit if the department falls short of its goals.
“We’re at a point now of hoping they can meet their deadlines,” she said. “My overall concern is that there isn’t a consistent plan to deal with this.”
CPS released a plan in September, laying out goals and a raft of changes intended to stabilize families and prevent children from being removed, find homes more quickly for those who are and reduce the number of kids in care. Case managers have been assigned to the county’s three largest shelters, including the East Valley Child Crisis Center in Mesa, to shorten stays there.
Shelter operators are concerned that arbitrary deadlines and limits could further traumatize children by separating brothers and sisters, bouncing children among multiple foster homes or placing them in over-stressed and under-supported homes.
A December review by the Youth Law Center showed the number of children under 4 in shelters statewide had dropped to 50 from 100 over the previous two months. The average number of days in shelter, however, was 83 — well above the 21-day limit.
More recent numbers provided by the shelters show that as of Feb. 17, in Maricopa County alone, 42 children under 4 years old and 56 children ages 4 to 6 were living in shelters.
“We’re just not happy with the way things are unfolding, because it’s just not good for kids,” said Chris Scarpati, director of the East Valley shelter.
“Emergency shelter is not designed for what it’s ended up being all these years,” she said. “We think shelter care, if it’s done the way it should be, has great value.”
Scarpati closed one of three units and lowered the maximum age from 12 to 10 as the number of CPS children began to decline last fall. That made more room in the 42-bed shelter for children whose parents needed temporary respites. As of last week, however, the shelter was full again, including 15 babies and children under 5, most of them from CPS.
Valley shelters are reinventing themselves, with plans to offer training and recruitment of foster parents and serve as short-term “assessment centers,” where children spend a day or two, get medical exams and a hot bath, and then move to a relative or foster home.
Foster families also will be asked to do more. New contracts will encourage them to accept children around the clock and work more closely with parents and relatives of children in their care. Shelters could play a key role in providing more support to foster parents.
“The basic point is, an excellent shelter can never rise to the level of an excellent foster parent,” Shauffer said. “So what we need are excellent foster parents.”
Sandy Reed and her husband have always been willing to take children at any hour, but it almost never happens. In 22 years of foster parenting, the Gilbert couple has been asked once or twice to take a child after 5 p.m. or on a weekend.
They also encourage meetings with the children’s families, something many foster parents are reluctant to do.
Legislative reforms, population growth and Gov. Janet Napolitano’s edict to put child safety first has led to an influx of foster children. Their numbers have been holding steady at nearly 10,000 — a 60 percent increase since September 2002.
CPS continues to struggle with high turnover, 100-plus vacancies among case managers and another 100 in training, forcing workers to carry caseloads of 30 or more children. Under those circumstances, Berns said, overwhelmed workers are relying on shelters and group homes to do some of the work so they can move to the next case.
“There are no greater and better partners for us than the shelters in our state,” he said. “But we believe kids belong in the most family-like setting possible.”
To find out about becoming a foster or adoptive parent, call (877) 543-7633 or visit www.azdes.gov/ dcyf/adoption. To learn about becoming a Child Protective Services case manager, go to www.azstatejobs.gov.