Children in Maricopa County have the greatest risk among the 20 largest metro areas of being sent into foster care, as well as seeing their parents' legal rights terminated, a national study has concluded.
For Black and Native American children, the risk is nearly double when measured against the risk for all children in the greater Phoenix area: About one in six face the prospect of being put in foster care, according to the study, published earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences.
Race and ethnicity aside, two out of every five youth in the county risk an investigation by the state Department of Child Safety at some point in their childhood, the study found.
The findings sent shock waves through social-worker and criminologist circles, said Chris Wildeman, one of the study's authors.
“They’ve just been floored at how common these events are for children," Wildeman said in a telephone interview from Duke University, where he is a sociology professor.
The study determined there's a 34.5% median risk across the nation's largest metro areas for some sort of investigation from a child protective services (CPS) agency; in Maricopa County, the risk is 41%, or about two out of every five children younger than 18.
The study examined child-welfare data from the 20 largest metro areas covering the years 2014-2018. It concluded that an investigation by a child welfare agency is universal in all of the large metro areas, and more so for Black children.
However, while investigations were fairly common, the outcomes varied widely. Entries into foster care in Maricopa County were just shy of 10% of cases investigated, while the median for the 20 counties examined was 3.5%.
The rate at which courts in Maricopa and Bexar (Texas) counties cut off parental rights was "shockingly higher than those in other counties," the report stated.
Termination of parental rights happened in almost 5% of cases in Maricopa County. For Bexar County, whose largest metro area is San Antonio, it was nearly 3%.
In contrast, New York courts terminated parental rights in fewer than 1% of cases.
The study's authors said they can't explain why children in the metro areas face a one-in-three chance of having an investigation for alleged abuse or neglect.
"Although it is unclear whether CPS contact causes poor outcomes or is merely associated with them, research nonetheless shows that children who have come into contact with CPS fare poorly on a range of outcomes," the study stated.
Wildeman said that given the prevalence of foster care and loss of parental rights for Black children especially, more work is needed.
"That suggests that CPS systems are either responding to something that is structurally induced, that merits a lot more attention, or we need to think more carefully when we launch investigations, which can be deeply disruptive to families," he said.
Working on change
In a statement, DCS said it is "acutely aware" of the challenges African American and Native American children face, both in Arizona and nationally.
The agency is working with one of the study's authors, Frank Edwards from the School of Social Justice at Rutgers University, on efforts to reduce the disproportionate numbers of these children. It's also continuing work with Black families and community advocates, agency spokesman Darren DaRonco wrote in the statement.
He added the study spanned a period of major change in the state's child-welfare agency, prompted by a deluge of children who entered the system in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
In Arizona, the number of Black and Native American children in the child-welfare system has always outstripped their share of the state population.
In its most recent report, DCS showed that as of June 30, Black children made up 16.2% of the 13,500 children in state care. Native Americans added another 8.2%.
Those figures are much higher than the share of Black and Native American children in the overall population of 1.6 million children under age 18: 5.7% and 5.8%, respectively.
In contrast, while 48% of Arizona's child population is white, just 31% of the children in DCS care are white. Likewise, Hispanic children account for 32.6% of the children in DCS care, compared to making up 43% of the state's 1.6 million children under age 18, U.S. Census figures show.
A long-standing problem
The disproportionate numbers don't surprise Matthew Stewart, a former DCS staffer who now is working to reduce that imbalance.
"We've been talking about these issues for years," said Stewart, who helped launch the agency's African-American Disparity Committee when he was still a training manager at DCS.
While he said his regular meetings with DCS Director Mike Faust have been "encouraging" and he sees an opportunity for change, things haven't moved past the talking stage.
"I'm waiting to see any action," he said.
He's concerned the director in charge of all fieldwork, which includes investigations and ongoing case management, has not been part of the conversations, as far as he's aware.
Having a sensitivity to cultural differences and a plan to deal with the needs of Black families is important, he said, if there is any hope of reversing the disparities in the foster-care ranks.
Stewart said he's trying to pull together a support network that has an understanding of the historic trauma and discrimination faced by the Black community. Many of the services DCS requires parents to take are cookie cutter, he complained, and don't recognize the cultural needs of Black families.
His hope is to create a safety net that would identify safe places to put children who have to be removed from their homes, as well as a way to identify families in need before someone makes a call to the state's child-abuse hotline.
To do that, he needs DCS to work with him and his growing network to know when children come into the system. He said Fresno, California, has a joint response initiative between that state's child welfare agency and the Black community that aims to more appropriately respond to abuse and neglect complaints.
"We've all been socialized to look at Black families and Black children in one way," Stewart said, adding it has led to what he says are unwarranted removals and disruptions to family life. That needs to change, and he said, he's pushing to get moving past the talk.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix-area kids face highest risk of foster care among large cities