Auditors: DCS provides low quality, late reports to judges
The state agency tasked with keeping children in Arizona safe is falling short when it comes to providing timely and accurate information to judges who use that information to decide the fate of vulnerable children, according to state auditors.
In a Sept. 29 report sent to Gov. Katie Hobbs and David Lujan, executive deputy director of the Arizona Department of Child Safety, Arizona Auditor General Lindsey Perry called out the department for failing to implement numerous recommendations from past audits and made many additional recommendations. Those included updating processes and internal oversight to ensure that reports going to judges and investigations of complaints against foster and group homes are completed in a timely manner.
DCS agreed with the auditor’s findings and promised to either implement the recommendations or make other changes with the same goals in mind.
“The Department is committed to ongoing improvement opportunities and will implement your recommendations,” Lujan wrote in the DCS response to the audit. Lujan was appointed director of the agency earlier this year, but was among 13 agency heads whose nominations were pulled and reassigned as “executive deputy directors” by Hobbs as part of a conflict with Arizona Senate Republicans over her nominees.
One of the most significant findings was that more than 60% of judges that auditors interviewed called out DCS for issues with the quality of reports submitted to them ahead of court hearings in which they might have to make decisions about a child’s future. The department also failed to submit almost 70% of those reports on time, according to the auditors.
The judges told auditors that these reports were vital to inform their determinations regarding placement and services for the children in DCS care.
“Inconsistently providing timely court reports with quality information can delay decisions about children’s services and placement in a stable, permanent home,” auditors wrote. “Some judges have postponed review hearings and reported difficulty making key determinations in cases because of late court reports and court report quality issues, which may delay decisions about a child’s placement, access to services, and/or reunification with parents.”
Out of 28 judges interviewed, 17 said that issues with report quality, such as outdated information or lack of details on children and parent progress toward their case plan goals “can make it difficult to make key determinations during hearings.”
DCS’s struggles to provide judges with timely and quality reports dates at least back to 2016, when auditors recommended the department provide more detail in its reports and review data to determine causes for reports submitted after the deadline of 15 days before the hearing.
At that time, the department said it did not plan to monitor report submission dates to figure out the causes of late reports, because it said it couldn’t get tracking data from the courts to determine the impact of late report submissions. As of June, some DCS supervisors were already monitoring court dates and report submissions, but the department did not require the practice.
“It is the Department’s responsibility to ensure that court reports are delivered to the juvenile court in a timely manner, regardless of the court’s ability to track or monitor court report receipt prior to dependency review hearings,” the auditors wrote.
In 2016, DCS was headed by Director Greg McKay, an appointee of then-Gov. Doug Ducey. When McKay left the job in 2019, he was replaced by Ducey appointee Mike Faust, who ended his tenure when Hobbs took office. Lujan is Hobbs’ second pick for the position.
Also in 2016, the department declined to improve the quality of its reports, saying that its report templates already provided the information required by state statute.
But the department has since changed its tune. In its response to this audit, DCS promised to provide guidance to supervisors about timely report submission, including closer tracking and coaching of those submitting the reports. The department also promised to work on its report quality.
The root causes of late report submissions, according to DCS are large caseloads, attrition leading to case reassignment and poor time management.
The department itself, following the audit, discovered an issue wherein documents uploaded to its computer system by health care providers showing parent progress in mental health and substance abuse programs were not added to childrens’ case files, meaning caseworkers might not have known about them. The mental health providers had uploaded 96,000 such documents, including 1,900 associated with 596 open juvenile court cases. The department acknowledges that this problem likely contributed to issues with the quality of reports delivered to judges.
By the end of September, the department planned to make changes to its system to automatically add documents uploaded by service providers to the relevant case files.
Auditors also found that, out of 29 applications to operate foster homes, adoption and child welfare agencies, the department did not ensure that nine applicants met requirements before issuing them a license. This included a failure to review fingerprint clearance cards and to check staff education and work history.
All six child welfare agency applicants that auditors reviewed did not include documentation, like a résumé or transcript, to demonstrate all of the applicants’ executive staff met educational and work history requirements. One applicant had one program director with only a high school diploma and included no work history, when each program is required to have a director with a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field and two years of experience working in child welfare.
From the start of 2022 through April 2023, DCS did not conduct ongoing monitoring of child welfare agencies, like group homes, but instead only visited the facilities as part of license renewal or complaint investigations. Best practice for this monitoring includes periodic unannounced visits, auditors wrote.
They also noted that failing to perform ongoing monitoring could result in “risky or unhealthy environments for children in out-of-home care.”
In response to the audit, the department said it would revise its procedures, with plans to begin quarterly monitoring of the homes.
Auditors also found that DCS is not reviewing enough foster homes from each licensing agency to make up a representative sample of the population. From January to March, DCS chose a sample of one to three foster homes from each agency to review on site, when the agencies license between three and 237 foster homes.
“For larger licensing agencies, without a larger sample size, the Department may go years without reviewing site visits for some foster homes,” auditors found.
They suggested completing more reviews of homes that have had licensing complaints or that haven’t been compliant with site reviews in the past.
Another issue that auditors discovered was a lag in completion of investigations into complaints about foster homes, with 15 out of 28 complaints that auditors looked into not completed within the required 45 days.
One of those complaints took 158 days, and another wasn’t completed for 406 days.
“Slow investigations may have allowed licensees to continue operating with unhealthy or risky environments that do not meet licensing standards,” Perry wrote.
In several cases, the department also took longer than the required 21 days to take actions against foster or group homes where violations were discovered.
Auditors suggested updating policies and procedures to ensure that cases are investigated and enforcement action is taken within the required time frames.
DCS also failed to review the IT security and confidentiality safeguards of welfare agency computer systems during site visits, to ensure information about the children they serve is protected. As of August, the department had updated its site review checklist to include a computer system security check.
Auditors also found that, as of February, five DCS employees who had been in their positions for up to five years did not submit an annual conflict of interest form, even though they held positions related to contract management and licensing.
The department had previously told auditors that it did not think developing procedures to ensure the forms are filled out should be a high priority.
Auditors disagreed, since “the department contracted for more than $200 million in programs and services and administered more than $270 million in adoption subsidies in both fiscal years 2021 and 2022 and licensed over 2,600 different child welfare agencies and foster homes as of July.”
In response to this year’s audit, DCS said all new employees were required to complete a conflict of interest disclosure statement, and promised to update its other policies and procedures, following an internal review.
Despite their many criticisms of the department, auditors did have some positive things to say about DCS, including its development of policies and procedures for assessing child safety in response to reports of abuse and neglect after a 2015 audit found that it “had inadequately implemented critical components of its child safety and risk-assessment process.”
DCS has also increased the percentage of children placed in kinship care since 2015, which is considered the most “family-like” placement for children who are removed from their homes by DCS.
In addition, the department has improved caseworker attendance at monthly local board case reviews each month, from 57% up to 82%.