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Audit shows lax oversight of Arizona group homes for foster kids. DCS says it's making changes

The Arizona Auditor General’s Office told lawmakers Wednesday that the Department of Child Safety’s oversight of foster group homes is lacking, but the department said it is making a concerted effort to reduce the number of children in those facilities.

Jeff Gove with the Auditor General’s Office said that over the past several years, DCS has been slow to respond to complaints about group homes or take enforcement action when it discovers a violation.

Gove said the department’s procedures call for investigations into group home complaints to be completed within 45 days, but the Auditor General conducted a review of 21 complaints and found at least nine investigations that lasted longer, including three that lasted over 135 days.

Gove said previous leadership was hesitant to take punitive action against group homes, but new DCS CEO David Lujan said that is not the case now.

“If there was such a culture in the past, we will not be afraid to shut down a group home if they’re not doing a good job,” Lujan said.

Lujan also said one of the department’s top goals is placing children with family members or with community foster parents instead of in group homes.

“The research shows children have much better outcomes when they can stay with family or extended family members and that’s why we want to do it,” Lujan said.

Sen. TJ Shope (R-Coolidge), chair of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, applauded that move.

“If the audit has shown us much of anything, the bulk of the problems with these children stem from group homes, etcetera,” Shope said.

Lujan, who just took over the department in March, also committed to implementing the Auditor General’s recommendations to improve DCS’ oversight of group homes and other deficiencies.

But he has a tall task ahead of him after previous leadership outright opposed many of those recommendations, Gove said.

Since the DCS was created in 2014, it has only worked to implement 62% of 103 recommendations, and that the department has not implemented 42 of 58 recommendations issued between 2016 and 2021.

Those recommendations include ways to improve practices to help foster children achieve permanent placements and practices to locate missing children. 

The audits were the subject of a five-hour discussion on Wednesday before lawmakers on the Arizona House and Senate Health and Human Services committees. Those legislators are responsible for making a recommendation to the full Legislature about whether to renew the DCS later this year. 

Committee members from both political parties and Lujan agreed the department needs to make a litany of improvements and should come into compliance with Auditor General recommendations that have previously been ignored. 

But lawmakers disagreed over how closely they should scrutinize the department considering Lujan came on the job less than a year ago and many of the issues cited by the auditor general predate his tenure.

That disagreement came to a head as lawmakers debated how long the department’s renewal should last.

Departments are typically renewed in eight or ten-year increments unless deficiencies lead legislators to approve a shorter renewal.

Democrats on the committee sought to renew DCS for six years, but some Republicans wanted to limit the renewal to two years and increase audits of the agency.

“We’re accountable to the people, and I believe these departments…are accountable to us, and I think it is our responsibility and we are duty bound to hold a tighter reins,” said Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu), who proposed the two-year extension. 

Ultimately, the committee voted to recommend a four year renewal. The entire Legislature will vote on that renewal later this year.

Shope, the committee chair, said he came into the meeting favoring a four to six year renewal.

“I do think two is just too low, considering we don’t probably fund the Auditor General’s office like we should, but some issues need to be taken care of,” Shope said. “

Lujan committed to implementing the Auditor General’s recommendations and told lawmakers they will see those improvements on a six-month follow up report that will be released later this year.

“Certainly, we’d like to see it be six years or longer, but whatever they decide, we’ll be prepared to show progress, and that’s my commitment” he said. “There’s a lot of things we have to address, that’s never been a secret, and we’re committed to making the changes that have been recommended.” 

Lujan also said the department will advocate for a longer renewal ahead of the final vote at the Legislature.

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Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.