• Tue. Jan 31st, 2023

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For Black families in Phoenix, child welfare investigations are a constant threat

The department declined to comment further on the two cases. 

Richards now feels intense dread when any of her children have even a minor injury or come down sick, fearing that DCS will show up again if she takes them to the doctor. 

And in the years since her own experiences with Arizona’s child welfare system, she said, two of her family members in Phoenix, as well as a neighbor and a client at her job, have also endured these investigations of their parenting. All of them are Black.

From 2015 to 2019, the last full year of federal child welfare statistics available before the pandemic, DCS investigated the family lives of 1 of every 3 Black children in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county and home to Phoenix, according to an analysis by ProPublica and NBC News of data obtained from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Last year, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences used similar data to project that by the time Black children in Maricopa County turn 18, there’s a 63% chance that they will see their parents investigated by child services, the highest rate of any of the 20 largest counties in the nation.

Put another way, more Black children in metro Phoenix will go through a child maltreatment investigation than won’t.

That’s significantly more likely than a Black teen being stopped by the police — an issue that has gained far more attention in recent years — according to multiple studies and interviews with criminal justice data experts.

Over the past year, ProPublica and NBC News have interviewed more than 30 Black parents across the Phoenix region who’ve faced a child welfare case, as well as several of their children and an additional nine teenagers who experienced DCS investigations. 

Some of the parents were working single dads or moms, like Richards, many of them living in the historically Black neighborhood of South Phoenix. Some were middle-class couples in the cactus-lined gated communities that dot suburbs like Mesa and Glendale. Some were adoptive parents, or extended family members caring for a child.

Almost all described a system so omnipresent among Black families that it has created a kind of communitywide dread: of that next knock on the door, of that next warrantless search of their home. And many expressed disbelief that it was so easy for the state government to enter their family realm and potentially remove their kids from them.

Black families and their advocates said DCS’ ubiquity does not just take the form of unnecessary investigations in which racial bias may have played a role, as Richards believed happened in her case. It’s also a product, in some cases, of public policy choices in Arizona that take a punitive rather than preventative approach toward Black parents, many of whom are struggling under the legacy of racism, a lack of inherited wealth and a slashed social safety net.

The state — the last in the nation to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday, in 1992 — spends a majority of its welfare budget on DCS investigations rather than on direct assistance to families in need, as ProPublica reported last year.

These priorities are borne out in the data. 

Only 2% of children in Maricopa County whose families were accused of child maltreatment from 2015 to 2019 were ultimately determined or suspected by caseworkers to be victims of any form of physical or sexual abuse following an investigation, one of the lowest rates among large counties in the U.S. 

But 15% allegedly experienced neglect, a term encompassing parenting problems typically associated with poverty, including a lack of decent housing, child care, food, clothing, medical care or mental health treatment. The category also includes alcohol and drug use, which numerous studies have found are more policed but no more common among Black or low-income people than other groups.

Roughly 20% of Black people in Maricopa County are living below the poverty line, compared to about 13% of all county residents, though having money should not be thought of as a requirement for good parenting, family advocates said.

Mailboxes in South Phoenix
South Phoenix, a historically Black neighborhood in the city. Many Black families first moved there as a result of redlining and racial covenants that blocked them from renting or owning property elsewhere. Stephanie Mei-Ling for NBC News and ProPublica

In an interview, the director of DCS, Mike Faust, said the data used for this article is based on a stretch of time, 2015 through 2019, that began with a caseload crisis for the department. Over that period, he said, the agency made sweeping changes, including improving its intake and risk assessment tools in order to reduce subjective decision-making and unnecessary investigations.

“We’ve gone from what I think most people would describe as the worst-performing child protection agency in the country to one that — I don’t know if you’ll ever have a high-performer child protection agency, given the nature of the work we do — but it’s drastically different,” said Faust, who is white and has led the agency since 2019.

Yet the most recent available federal data through September 2020 shows that while it is true that DCS has reduced the overall number of families it looks into statewide, the decline did not improve — and in fact worsened — the racial disparity.

Although 7,400 fewer white children were the subject of investigations completed from the 2016 to 2020 fiscal years, the number of Black kids whose parents were investigated dropped by less than 100. (Some children did not have a race identified.)

“It didn’t have an immediate impact on just African American children,” Faust acknowledged. “The commitment that I make is to continue to stay engaged as an organization. And trust me, these are some challenging conversations to be in. It’s been difficult. But you’ve got to keep coming back to the table regardless of, at times, that people share that raw emotion.”

Faust, a conservative Republican with a private-sector background, may be out of a job by next spring. The election last month of Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, as Arizona governor likely means that DCS will have a new leader and possibly a new approach to racial disproportionality in the coming years. 

In a statement, Joe Wolf, a spokesperson for Hobbs’ transition, pointed out that her career has included stints working with homeless youth and helping to run one of the largest domestic violence shelters in the country, giving her perspective on what affects Arizona’s most vulnerable. Wolf also said that as the governor-elect prepares to take office, her team is developing plans to improve the way the state provides social services, including “addressing the racial disparities that have plagued the system for so long.” 

How America’s child welfare dragnet ensnares struggling families

Still, Black community leaders in Phoenix continue to have concerns, saying that it has been challenging to effectively advocate for reforms across both Republican and Democratic administrations. 

For one thing, the metro area’s Black community — just 7% of its population — is sparse and spread out compared to that of similarly large U.S. cities. That makes it hard to organize around this common experience to make DCS a pressing political issue and hold its officials accountable. 

What’s more, sharing that you were investigated by child services remains more stigmatizing in many families than saying you’ve been stopped by the police.

As a result, some local leaders said it took them a while to realize just how pervasive DCS’ presence is.

Janelle Wood, founder and president/CEO of Phoenix’s Black Mothers Forum, said that when she started her community organization in 2016, she thought its members would mainly be focused on police violence and the criminalization of Black youth, which they have been to an extent. “But what kept coming up at meetings was DCS,” she said, noting that the confidentiality of the gatherings allowed for these conversations. “The most heart-wrenching stories — so many mothers had them.”

Kenneth Smith, principal of a Phoenix alternative high school and a community organizer who works with the local chapter of the NAACP and a group of nonprofits in the city, said he doesn’t usually talk about this issue openly due to the stigma, even though he knows of several people who’ve had DCS cases.

The statistics identified by ProPublica and NBC News, he said, are “like turning on the lights, and all of us are now standing in the room together saying, ‘What? You too?’”

‘It becomes a generational curse’

This year, ProPublica and NBC News have been investigating child welfare in the U.S.

What reporters have found is that child protective services agencies investigate the home lives of roughly 3.5 million American children each year, opening refrigerators and closets and searching kids’ bodies in almost every case. Yet they determine there was physical or sexual abuse in only about 5% of these investigations.

And while Phoenix is an outlier, the racial disproportionality of this system is a national problem.

In Maricopa County, Black children experienced child welfare investigations at one of the highest rates among large counties nationally, and nearly three times the rate of their white peers, from 2015 to 2019.

But throughout the country, investigations were more pervasive among Black families. And in many smaller counties, the rates were even higher than in the Phoenix area.

Matthew Stewart, the son of the longtime senior pastor of Phoenix’s most prominent Black church, First Institutional Baptist, joined DCS as a case manager in 2009. He did so in part because he had an interest in social justice and youth mentorship from his upbringing.

But in 2018, Stewart, by then a training supervisor, came across an internal agency spreadsheet showing a large racial disparity in Arizona’s foster care population, which mainly consists of children removed from their families following investigations. He hadn’t fully absorbed the problem until then. 

He was flooded with shame. 

Stewart quit two years later, after deciding he couldn’t achieve meaningful change from within the department. He has since founded a community organization, Our Sister Our Brother, which advocates helping families rather than separating them. 

Generational poverty and the resulting trauma within families have been “centuries in the making,” he said. Are parents supposed to believe that after DCS takes custody of their children, “these things will be solved?” 

“I simply don’t think DCS is the agency to do this,” he said.

One of the parents whom Stewart has partnered with is Tyra Smith, of nearby Mesa, who now works for his growing group as a parent advocate.