Arizona State Agencies Named in Federal Class Action for Their Dangerous, Severely Deficient Foster Care System

Significant Foster Home Shortage, Lack of Physical and Mental Health Care Services and Failure to Investigate Reports of Child Maltreatment in State Care Put Youth at Risk, Says Suit

(Phoenix, A.Z.) – Even as Arizona has taken steps to reduce the enormous backlog of reports that children have been maltreated in their own homes, it has disregarded other destructive practices that expose abused and neglected children to “further physical and emotional harm and unreasonable risk of harm while in the State’s care,” according to a federal class-action lawsuit that 10 plaintiff children filed today on behalf of the more than 16,000 children in state foster care.

The suit, which names Charles Flanagan, director of the Department of Child Safety (DCS), and William Humble, director of the Department of Health Services (DHS) as defendants, alleges a severe shortage of health care services, an acute lack of foster homes, a failure to preserve family ties once children are in foster care, and a failure to conduct timely investigations into reports that children have been maltreated while in state care. The plaintiffs, who filed the suit in the Phoenix Division of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, are being represented by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, Phoenix law firm Coppersmith Brockelman PLC and national advocacy organization Children’s Rights.

“Arizona’s reforms to date will not keep children safe,” said Anne C. Ronan, attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. “The state’s recent efforts to reduce its huge backlog of reports that children have been maltreated in their homes do not even address, much less remedy, the core deficiencies that are harming children already in state custody. Today our plaintiffs demand that the state put an end to the practices that are undermining their health and safety.”

Kris Jacober, president of the Arizona Association for Foster and Adoptive Parents, voiced support for the lawsuit. “It is time that someone gives voice to the thousands of children in foster care who have no say about where they live, where their siblings go, or what happens in their future. Children are still sleeping in DCS offices because there is nowhere else for them. They’re not receiving timely or needed mental health services. The children in this lawsuit represent thousands with similar stories. The state can’t simply bring them into custody and provide for them on the fly. We are responsible for their well-being.”

The 10 named plaintiffs, representing all children in state care, as well as various subclasses of children, range in age from 3 to 14. The lawsuit charges the following:

  • A severe shortage of, and inability to access, physical, mental and behavioral health services that should be available to children in state care. Numerous reports have concluded that children in state foster care are not receiving the health care assessments and services they desperately need. For example, there are currently only about 400 foster homes that provide therapeutic services to children (known as “Home Care Training to Home Care Client Services”), not nearly enough for the more than 16,000 children in state foster care, including the 31 percent of teenagers in out-of-home care who, according to the State Auditor General, have been clinically diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.

Plaintiff B.K. entered state care for the third time in 2012, when she was 8. Even though she showed signs of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and abuse, she was separated from her siblings and put in a group home on an “emergency shelter” basis for two years. The state ignored her need for glasses, and didn’t address her limp or toothache for months. The state also failed to provide consistent counseling or mental health services, even though B.K. said she was hearing voices and threatened to hurt herself and others.

  • A severe and sustained shortage of family foster homes. As of September 2014, there were 9,418 kids in foster care who were not placed with relatives or in trial home reunification settings. However, the state licensed only 4,397 foster homes and 5,669 available spaces for these children, leaving 3,749 children without foster homes. As a result, according to Director Flanagan and others, there are many instances when children sleep in DCS offices because homes aren’t available.

C.P., a 6-year-old in foster care for less than two years, has already attended eight different schools and lived in 11 different placements – including 10 days in a Spanish-speaking home, though he doesn’t speak the language. Following discharge from a psychiatric hospital, he was placed in a shelter, against his provider’s recommendations.

  • A widespread failure to engage in basic child welfare practices aimed at preserving family relationships. For example, the state wrongly separates children from their siblings. As of September 2013, the state failed to place all siblings together 35 percent of the time. The state also places children far from their home communities, disconnecting them from their families and leading to harmful changes in schooling. As of September 2012, only 31 percent of children were placed in the same zip code as the homes from which they were removed.

The four C-B siblings, aged 3 to 7, have a goal of reunification, but didn’t see their mother for the first four months they were in state care, and initially were placed 2 ½ hours away from her home. At times they have been unnecessarily separated from each other, and today the youngest child remains in a different home from the others.

  • The failure to ensure timely investigations into reports that children have been maltreated while in state foster care.

As the issue of uninvestigated and inactive maltreatment reports continues to play out in the news, the state’s own statistics show a previously unreported aspect of the story: the failure to properly investigate extends to children who were reportedly maltreated while in the state’s care. According to the state’s own data, from October 1, 2012 through March 31, 2013, more than half (54 percent) of all investigations involving kids in state care were initiated late. And between October 2010 and March 2013, more than a thousand maltreatment investigations have not been completed within the required time periods.

“This is emblematic of the ongoing dysfunction that plagues DCS and leaves kids at risk,” said William Kapell, lead counsel for Children’s Rights. “It is unconscionable that even one child, already traumatized by being removed from home, would suffer again in the supposed safe haven of foster care.”

B.K. v. Flanagan argues that, as a result of the state’s failure to address and remedy the known and longstanding deficiencies in its child welfare system, plaintiffs have been, and continue to be, exposed to harm and an unreasonable risk of harm, in violation of their federal constitutional and statutory rights. The suit asks the court to ensure, among other things, that: children in foster care receive the health care services they need; DCS provides an adequate number and array of foster care placements; DCS allows children in foster care to have adequate visitation with their family members; and DCS conducts timely investigations into reports that children have been maltreated in state care.