Maricopa County Courts Adding More Judges To Deal With Influx Of DCS Cases
On the second floor of the juvenile court building in west Phoenix, parents, attorneys and caseworkers line the benches and walls anxiously outside the facility’s six courtrooms. Each family will spend about 20 minutes in front of the judge. In these chambers, judges decide whether to separate or keep families together.
Attorney Christina Phillis represents parents in these cases. She noticed a change in the way the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) is treating families.
“We stopped viewing the family as something sacred and that we need to protect. [It's now] something that is disposable and interchangeable,” she said. “We have a child, we will just give it new parents and it will be happy.”
Phillis has been dealing with a large increase in her case volume over the past few years. Maricopa County Courts report the number of kids involved in dependency and severance proceedings has doubled in the last five years. Starting in January, civil judges will start taking these cases to help speed up the process.
In the meantime, 21,418 children in Arizona have ongoing cases, according to data from the Attorney General’s Office. Numbers from DCS show more than 80 percent of those kids are living in foster or group homes, with extended family or in shelters.
“The cases are staying open longer, services are not being put into place for parents in a timely manner,” Phillis said.
Data from the Attorney General shows 6,141 cases have been open for more than a year — a time frame Veronica Van is well past. Her case has been open 19 months.
Van sketches on a thick pad of white paper on the back porch of a residential treatment center in Laveen. She said art is her way of coping.
“It’s a positive outlet,” said Van. “When I start thinking about my kids, I’ll do it.”
DCS confirmed it first had contact with her in May of last year, but can’t comment on specific cases for privacy reasons. Van said she spent almost a fifth of her case time waiting for court-ordered drug treatment. She eventually took matters into her own hands — a move she believes may have saved her parental rights to her three kids.
Van said at her last hearing the judge told her, “'Had you not taken the steps you did, checking yourself into treatment, I would have severed your rights.'”
She is now more than two months into her treatment for a meth addiction, and on the path to getting her kids back. But Van has faced more than just a long wait for services — since her case started, she said she’s had nine DCS caseworkers.
DCS officials face several challenges when tackling the issue of long wait times, one of which is turnover. According to the agency’s staffing reports, about 40 percent of its active caseworkers left in the last fiscal year. As of September, there were 972 active caseworkers, which is fewer than when the agency was restructured last May. As part of a revamping of the Arizona child welfare system, state lawmakers gave the agency more than $6 million to hire caseworkers to deal with the caseload.
Despite losing 404 caseworkers last fiscal year, DCS spokesman Doug Nick said the agency is working to deal with the attrition.
“We are working with HR to better identify candidates for caseworker positions,” he said.
The agency is working with community service providers, which Nick said are adding more staff. He claims the waitlist has been decreasing in recent months, but he couldn’t specify how long families are waiting for court-mandated services.
“We are implementing a strategy that is designed to eliminate the waitlist in about six months or so,” said Nick. “That is our hope and that is what we’ve outlined in our objectives.”
He’s referring to the agency’s strategic plan released in July. According to that document, the agency plans to add more service contracts, have ongoing meetings and implement strategies to reduce the department's need for intervention.
Regardless of the improvements DCS said it's making, attorney Christina Phillis hasn’t seen her cases move any faster. She said the courts consistently have to extend deadlines.
“We could be moving towards having the children go home or having unsupervised visits, but none of that’s happening because no one has the information and the services haven’t been put in place.”
At least for now, that’s what the numbers show. The Arizona Attorney General's office reports more than 3,000 cases have now been open longer than two years.
Length Of Cases
Removals And Peitions
Source: Arizona Department of Child Safety and ARizona Attorney General's Office