PHOENIX — Data shows that the Arizona Department of Child Safety disproportionately investigates and removes Black children from their homes, compared to white and Hispanic kids.
ABC15 first highlighted the 'extreme' disparities in February, and shared the 'nightmare' experience of the Ranger family.
"I feel like we were stereotyped, right off the bat," said Kevin Ranger, who nearly had his daughter removed by the state.
The Ranger's story is one of many in Arizona that African American advocates and families point to when discussing the need for systemic change.
"We estimate 63% of Black children, between birth and 18, will be investigated [by DCS] in Maricopa [County]," said Dr. Frank Edwards, an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University.
Edwards was one of the authors of the National Academy of Sciences study that examined CPS data from the 20 most populous U.S counties from 2014-2018.
The researchers found Maricopa County led the country in foster care placement and termination of parental rights for African Americans.
The higher-education authors said it was "comparatively extreme," the rate at which Maricopa County Black children were removed from their parents during the four-year time period.
Arizona DCS Director Mike Faust acknowledges there are real issues and that his agency needs to better address the glaring racial discrepancies.
"Personally, I spend 15 to 20% of my time, specifically, on this," said Director Faust. "We're keenly aware of that [data], and that's why we are engaged in this conversation."
But Director Faust also tries to deflect some blame for the disparities.
"The organization was in a really bad place in 2015," said Faust. "So to see the 25% reduction that we've seen in foster care, that positively benefited African-American children, as it did white and Hispanic children."
Faust also is quick to point out that DCS does not control calls to the hotline or which families are reported.
He said the agency is working to better understand why Black families are being reported to the agency at a rate 3.5 times higher than kids of other races.
"Although African American children are reported [to DCS] at a higher rate, the entry into [foster] care, relative to that reporting, is proportionate to that of white children," said Faust.
"It's absolutely correct that the child welfare system does not control the front door, but they do control the foster care and investigation substantiation decisions," said Dr. Edwards.
The most recent data shows that roughly one out of every 34 Black children in our state ends up in foster care at some point.
"In a state where we are data-driven, this data does not seem to drive action," said Matthew Stewart.
Stewart spent 10 years working for the Arizona Department of Child Safety.
In 2020 he left the organization and now advocates for many Black families dealing with his former employer. He thinks the agency can be doing more to right the wrongs of recent years.
"I want every single African-American case that is open in the state of Arizona, where children have been removed, to be reviewed," said Stewart.
A review that time-intensive and thorough is unlikely to happen, but Stewart said he does meet with Director Faust regularly to talk about cases that the community has flagged for his help.
Meanwhile, Director Faust said his agency is reviewing internal processes and procedures to see if they contribute to the disparities.
"We’re looking at standardizing our statewide mandated reporter training...We are working on cultural humility and cultural empathy training for our workforce," said Faust. We are working on specific interventions for engaging with the community. So it is part of our strategic objectives."
Professor Edwards though, says the disparities are going to take a lot more than just training to adequately address.
According to the Casey Family Programs, the vast majority of child welfare investigations, 91% of Arizona's in 2019, are related to allegations of 'Neglect or Other' not 'Abuse.'
Edwards says a lot of the so-called neglect is tied to poverty.
"Child welfare agencies are poorly equipped to deal with the broad problems of child poverty," said Edwards. "That's not what they're there for - they are there to deal with extreme cases of child abuse."
Edwards said the state needs to look at childcare options and resources for low-income families, the food voucher and welfare programs, access to affordable housing, and a litany of other services that impact child welfare.
"We need to think of it in a broad systemic way, rather than as a problem one agency can deal with."
"What would you say to the governor, about why this matters?" asked ABC15.
"Are we comfortable with three-fifths of Black children in a state or in a county experiencing a relatively extreme event that is a child welfare system investigation?" asked Edwards, rhetorically.
"I think that the governor ought to take a serious look at the whole network of services and programs available to kids and families in Maricopa [County] and beyond, and think about whether they're adequate for the real needs that families are facing."
Matthew Stewart has another question for the governor and state leaders.
"Why aren't we all angry that Black children are being removed from their homes at a much higher rate?"
If you have a story involving DCS or another state agency, you can email Zach at firstname.lastname@example.org.