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Foster family says state was unresponsive when called on for assistance

Posted at 7:05 PM, Nov 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-15 18:57:51-05

They are everyday people who open up their hearts and their homes to some of the most vulnerable children in the state, children in state custody.

Many of these children have never experienced a stable family life. Many are victims of abuse, neglect, and have suffered a lot of trauma in their young lives.

Some of these children come with behavior problems due to the stressful situations they have lived through, and when foster families sign up to take them in not only are they aware of these concerns, they are also promised a helping hand and resources provided by the state.

That is why Sunni Rabago was extremely frustrated after she decided to open up her home to a relative's child, in state custody and was unable to get help when she most needed it.

Rabago had hoped she would be able to help the beautiful three-year-old girl find a sense of family and home again, but she soon learned the child had severe behavior issues that she says were out of her control.

"She had a lot of anger issues. Throwing furniture, assaulting children at daycare and preschool," Rabago said.

Rabago showed ABC15 behavior reports issued by staff at the daycare.

"In this one she threw magnets at another child. She's been hitting and kicking peers, she becomes extremely angry. Smacked peers in the face, smacked the teacher, attempted to kick the teacher," said Rabago.

Desperate to get help, Rabago said she reached out to the case worker who handled their case.  When she was unable to get in touch with the case worker, Rabago said she reached out to the supervisor, and then finally to the local Ombudsman's office.

"The phones were always turned off, the voicemail was full for two weeks, or we didn't get any return calls. I called the supervisors, I didn't get any return calls from the supervisors. I probably made over 40 phone calls to try to get responses. Several text messages as well. I contacted the Ombudsman's office and we were going on three and a half weeks now, I've yet to get a call from their office as well," said Rabago.

Frustrated with the lack of response, Rabago said she finally decided to take matters into her own hands and drive to the her local Department of Child Safety office, in Casa Grande.

She sat there in the lobby waiting, until a supervisor came out to speak with her.

"She said the case manager had to be out for personal issues. She left her phone at the courthouse for over a week, I'm not sure how that's even acceptable," said Rabago.

The child she hoped to care for is now back in state custody. Rabago said that broke her heart because she really wanted to be there for her relative's little girl.

"It's just wrong, it's not okay," said Rabago.

She blasted the Department of Child Safety saying they needed to do their job.  

"You're being paid to do a service. It's negligent that you're not doing it," said Rabago.

ABC15 asked a DCS spokesperson why no one responded to Rabago's cries for help. DCS officials sent us a statement outlining all the steps a foster family should follow, if they needed help. They included everything Rabago said she had already done.

We asked DCS officials what they considered a reasonable response time to a foster parent in crisis. A spokesperson said 24-48 hours unless it was a holiday or weekend. But officials also pointed out that parents could contact behavioral health specialists listed to them in the packet they initially received.

DCS officials said if a parent felt the child was a threat to themselves or to others, the parent should call 911.

Kris Jacober, the president of the Arizona Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents said while many things have improved greatly within the state agency, many parents who were part of the organization still felt that when it came to the day to day interaction with case workers or between the state and families, things were "as bad as ever".

Jacober said there needed to be better communication between the caseworkers and families who were caring for the children.

In a statement a DCS spokesman says:

“We take every foster parents’ complaint seriously.

If a foster parent cannot reach a caseworker within two working days, the foster parent should contact the caseworker’s supervisor. The supervisor’s contact information is included in the case worker’s voicemail recording and on the notice to provider which every foster placement receives.

If the supervisor also does not contact the foster parent within two working days, the foster parent should contact our Ombudsman’s Office.

Our Ombudsman’s Office works with foster parents if they are dissatisfied with DCS actions, or lack of action. The Ombudsman Office reviews each complaint and determines what type of response is required.

In cases where the complaint is lack of communication, an Ombudsman will intervene on behalf of the foster parent and work on resolving the complaint by contacting the caseworker and supervisor. This oftentimes resolves the matter.

The Department recognizes our caseworkers have an enormous, daily responsibility to ensure children, families and foster parents are receiving the services and supports they need. They also can receive dozens of inquiries a day. Some families require more immediate attention so caseworkers oftentimes have to prioritize which inquiries get addressed first.

We understand that fostering a child can be stressful and not hearing back from a caseworker in a timely manner can exacerbate that stress.

That’s why we recommend our frontline workers respond within 24 hours to inquiries they receive. But we realize that emergencies can arise which can make the suggested deadline unattainable. This is why we have the policy in place that if a person does not hear back from a caseworker or supervisor in a reasonable amount of time, they contact the Ombudsman’s Office for help.

And the Ombudsman’s Office acts on every complaint received.

Some recent stats:

  • In October 2017, 640 complaints were received by the Ombudsman’s Office.
  • The Office responded to all of the 640 complaints and resolved 592 of them.
  • The average response time to a complaint was less than one business day.
  • In September 2017, 592 complaints were received by the Ombudsman’s Office.
  • The Office responded to all of the 592 complaints and resolved 566 of them.
  • The average response time to a complaint was less than one business day.

If a foster parent has a complaint about behavioral health services, they should contact the RHBA whose information is included in the placement packet foster families receive.

In regards to your question on a specific complaint, while I cannot comment on a specific complaint due to confidentiality laws, I can tell you that the Department forwards complaints it receives to the Ombudsman’s Office.”

DCS officials said they planned to look into the breakdown in communication Rabago had with the caseworker, supervisor, and Ombudsman she had tried to contact.

"A day after the story aired on ABC15, DCS followed-up with the following comment:

The DCS Ombudsman's office indicates they have no record of Sunni Rabago filing a complaint.  In addition, there have been no complaints filed with the DCS Ombudsman's office associated with the case where Ms. Rabago was the foster mother.

A spokesman indicates it may be possible Rabago could have contacted a different Ombudsman's office. 

Families with difficulty getting in touch with a caseworker or supervisor should make sure to contact the DCS Ombudsman's office by phone, email, or in person."