Skip to main content.

Reporters reveal deep faults in Arizona’s swollen foster care system

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Reporters reveal deep faults in Arizona’s swollen foster care system

Blog body

[Photos by Arizona Daily Star]
[Photos by Arizona Daily Star]

When Arizona’s foster care system swelled to an all-time-high of over 19,000 children in 2016, the reason should have been obvious to the state’s lawmakers.

It certainly wasn’t because thousands of residents were suddenly abusing and neglecting their children, but Arizona approached the problem with that mentality. As a result, thousands of children were taken from their families when in-home services and support would have sufficed.

Here’s what was actually happening: Since the Great Recession a decade ago, Arizona legislators have cut funding and programs that help families struggling with poverty and related issues and instead began spending more and more money on foster care and adoption services.  

The result for Arizona families has been tragic: Deeper poverty, more drug and alcohol addiction, unaddressed mental health problems and cyclical trauma compounded, for the children, by time spent in the foster care system.

For example, the lack of access to childcare subsidies caused the rate of child neglect to skyrocket, as more and more parents left their children home alone or with questionable caretakers in order to work. 

When we embarked on this project, Arizona was starting to make some changes to its approach, but the underlying reasons for the crisis were still not being addressed and so, we thought, the small improvements were going to be temporary. 

How can Arizona bring about lasting change and really help its families?

One of our first steps entailed collecting data to see how both Arizona and Pima County and are doing. Here are some of our findings:

  • Arizona has one of the worst collective trauma scores in the nation with about 31 percent of our children having two or more adverse experiences in 2016, compared with the national average of 21.7 percent;
  • One in four Pima County children live in poverty;
  • About 70 percent of the abuse and neglect cases that came through the Pima County Juvenile Court Center in 2016 involved substance abuse on the part of one or both parents;
  • Mental health challenges among court-involved families rose 52 percent from 2008 to 2016.
  • About 7 percent of Arizona's babies are born to teen mothers and one of four children under age 6 lives in poverty.  Women with the highest rates of unintended pregnancy are low-income, and between the ages of 18 and 24.
  • Youth in foster care are almost twice as likely as the general population to get pregnant.

Using data from multiple local and state agencies and nonprofits, we created an interactive map to see where our county’s largest areas of need exist, whether those areas were resource and food deserts (they were) and then added the number of calls to our child safety department and the number of children being removed from home. This made it easy to see the correlation between poverty and involvement in the child welfare system.

Some of our other findings from data:

  • About 60 percent of those removals are children of color, and while that percentage roughly mirrors the state’s overall population, we found significant disparities for two groups: the percentage of black and Native American children removed from their home exceeded their proportion of the population.
  • Even among Hispanic children, research has shown that over- or underrepresentation may vary by generation and each pattern may be problematic on its own.
  • As demographics in places like Arizona continue to shift, with minority children comprising a larger share of the total population, we felt it was important to make sure we addressed the added issues that some of the most marginalized face — especially in a place where the system has been stretched to its limit.

As we started to work on this project — holding roundtable discussions with service providers, speaking with local stakeholders and those involved in the system — it became clear that disparities and disproportionality were not on anyone’s radar. While the juvenile court had plenty of research and data on disproportionality in the delinquency side, it had nothing on the dependency side. (Delinquency refers to cases in which juveniles have been charged with crimes, while dependency cases involve families in which child abuse or neglect is suspected.) The state’s child welfare agency refused multiple requests for an interview to talk about disproportionality and the added challenges immigrant or refugee communities face, while making multiple employees available to the rest of the reporting team.

Next, we started looking at what other states were doing to deal with similar problems.

Colorado and Washington State were standouts as places that were doing things and funding things differently.

Here’s some of what we found:

  • In Colorado Springs, they believe that tackling poverty is the key to addressing family crisis and child neglect. They use federal funding from TANF on child care, cash assistance and job training. Arizona uses it, or we have since the Great Recession, to fill budget gaps and fund our foster care system and adoption services. (The share of TANF money that was moved to DCS grew by 67 percent from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal 2015, as the number of children DCS removed from their homes skyrocketed).
  • In Colorado Springs, they also have caseworkers from their child safety system and their TANF workers collaborate to figure out the best way to help a family, both financially and through family services.
  • I also visited Larimer County, Colorado, where the focus over the last decade has shifted almost entirely to prevention. A mainstay of this approach includes intensive collaboration: Families in need are surrounded with a team of supporters and providers. After the county implemented this approach, it saw reliance on its foster care system drop dramatically. As of last spring, about 2.4 out of every 1,000 children in Larimer County got placed in foster care, while in Pima County during that time the number was 10 of every 1,000.
  • Birth control and family planning — Colorado is doing so much better than we are in this regard. From 2009 through 2016, Colorado's birth rate fell 54 percent for girls and women ages 15 to 19, and 30 percent for women ages 20 to 24. And the number of teens giving birth for the second or third time dropped 63 percent. This is due to a shift in both funding and philosophy. 
  • In July, Washington State passed legislation that brings together its child safety system and its equivalent of Arizona’s First Things First, which is called the department of early learning. The idea was to have the two agencies stop trying to fulfill specific goals but instead work together to provide services that are tailored to a family’s specific needs. The objective is to keep families intact as much as possible.
  • In Washington, they also rely on a non-partisan public policy institute, which studies family programs and whether these programs are worth the money. This has helped steer Washington lawmakers to fund mostly evidence-based programming, which means they are using what’s been proven to work and worth the investment.

Our reporting takeaways

The challenges of reporting on these communities and on a topic that had received so little attention meant we had to do the following:

Be flexible. Have a plan A, B and C: Although we initially set out to write a story to show readers what it was like for a family of color to struggle, perhaps having to hold multiple jobs and not having access to child care, in the end we had to be OK with writing a straight news story presenting the problem and the disparities without having a specific family to illustrate the problems faced. It was hard to find the right family to profile since we didn't have the time to develop the trust that entails.

Use your newsroom’s resources: Even though Perla has written about immigrant communities for many years, child welfare was a new topic for her. She relied extensively on her colleagues who have much more experience on this issue as a guide to make sure she was on the right track and to reach potential sources.

Sometimes the solution is right at home: For most of this project we looked at other states and communities to highlight solutions to Arizona’s crisis, but for some stories, the solution was here in Pima County. For example, a group of advocates, attorneys, judges and social workers from both sides of the border got together to form a transnational task force to come up with ways to better collaborate to facilitate family reunification when the parent is deported. They also developed a toolkit to be used throughout the state and have done webinars to train judges in other parts of the country.

Keep focused on spending:  How state and counties spend money on issues related to families and children is very telling and we found it was very helpful to show readers how using evidence-based programs offers a return on the dollar that would be of comfort to fiscal conservatives.


The nation's top infectious disease specialist will join us for a conversation with national health reporter Dan Diamond of The Washington Post. We’ll talk about the evolving threat posed by monkeypox, the current state of the COVID pandemic, and broader lessons on how we respond to emerging diseases. Sign-up here!

The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors and a social media consultant to join its team. Learn more about the positions and apply.


Follow Us



CHJ Icon