There are 14,000 foster children in Arizona’s foster care system.
Yet only a fraction will have a second chance at finding a healthy, loving parent.
In Arizona, not only is there a shortage of licensed foster care parents, but foster parents also have fewer rights compared to foster parents in other states.
Foster parents fear being blacklisted
Foster parents fear being reported to the state Department of Child Services (DCS) on an allegation of abuse.
While the state must rescue abused children from harmful situations, an unproven accusation — based on an anonymous report — can wreck a family and leave foster parents with no right to appeal if a government worker finds substance in an allegation.
Even worse, a foster parent could find himself on the Central Registry — a blacklist of people who DCS believes have abused a child.
A person whose name appears on the registry may be banned from working or volunteering with children in the future.
When a report is made to DCS’s Child Abuse Hotline, the agency dispatches a specialist to the child’s home. The specialist then investigates whether there is a “probable cause” that the child is being maltreated.
Probable cause standard is too low
Probable cause is a lower standard than “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the standard used in criminal proceedings. Simply put, probable cause means a government employee thinks there is “some evidence that an allegation is more likely to be true than not true.”
If the specialist believes the standard has been satisfied, he will “substantiate” the report.
New York used a similar standard of evidence before adopting a “fair preponderance of the evidence” standard last year.
Critics argued that the old, unusually low standard of evidence wasn’t used anywhere else in family law and that it left families vulnerable to arbitrary enforcement.
If the Arizona Department of Child Safety followed suit by adopting the fair preference standard, the agency would be compelled to evaluate if the allegation is supported by the totality of the evidence, rather than just some of it.
Court almost always sides with DCS
It’s difficult to assess the extent that foster parents are in jeopardy.
DCS publishes figures on an overall number of allegations and substantiated incidents but provides no breakouts. The department also doesn’t publish the number of people on its Central Registry or how many are foster parents.
What’s known is that in Arizona, a foster child will almost certainly be removed from a home with a substantiated report.
And when the foster parent goes to court to challenge their child’s removal, the court will essentially always side with the Department of Child Safety.
State law requires the judge to uphold the government’s decision except in highly unusual circumstances, which makes DCS’ decisions effectively immune from judicial review.
Thus, no authority can hold the department accountable for removal decisions.
In contrast, states like California and New York protect foster parents from arbitrary removal decisions.
If a foster child is not in danger, state governments must notify foster parents at least a week before removing a foster child from their home.
That week is a critical period for foster parents to make their case to the agency that it is in their foster child’s best interest to remain in her home.
Most caregivers will face investigation
Most Arizona foster parents can expect to be investigated by the Department of Child Safety at some point.
Usually, it’s not a question of “if” a foster parent will be the subject of an investigation, but “when.”
Sadly, many false reports are made by angry biological relatives, well-meaning but mistaken mandatory reporters, or fostering children themselves, who hope that a report will result in a new home placement.
No one knows: If disabled Arizonans being protected from abuse
Although a foster parent can appeal a substantiated report, at each level of the process, the same loose probable cause standards apply.
And even if an administrative law judge rules for the foster parent on appeal, the DCS department head can overturn the ruling and still put the parent on the registry.
Require more evidence. It can help kids
Mistaken substantiations can ruin lives.
Being placed on the registry means being denied employment opportunities as caregivers, case workers, social service providers and public school teachers.
It can also mean being barred from fostering or adopting children.
Raising the standard of evidence needed to substantiate abuse allegations and providing an appeal process for removal decisions are commonsense policies to attract and empower foster parents.
Reasonable protections for foster parents don’t hurt foster children — instead, they offer hope that an at-risk child will find a forever family.
Alethea Chaney is a mentor with Foster Arizona, a Mesa nonprofit that works with young adults aging out of the foster care system. She attends the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Reach her at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona foster parents can be blacklisted over unproven abuse claims