PHOENIX — Arizona's Department of Child Safety (DCS) has received numerous complaints about North Star Independent Living Services, a company that licenses with the state to own and operate group homes for foster teens across the state.
Despite issuing North Star numerous letters of violation, ranging from drug use and gun possession to deplorable living conditions, DCS has allowed North Star to continue its operation.
Damning complaints obtained by 12News
Through a public records request, 12News obtained some of the complaints from DCS.
- In July of 2021, DCS issued an "Agreement with Action," including a plan to try and mitigate drug use at facilities.
- Later that same month, North Star was issued a "Letter of Violation" after DCS found deplorable resident living conditions. According to the complaint, at the Mountain View facility, there were grimy floors, overflowing trashcans, broken blinds, and doors, window screens were missing, holes in the wall, and some beds were missing sheets.
- In August of 2021, North Star was issued a "Letter of Violation" after the Prescott Fire Department found a North Star child who was inebriated to the point where they were almost unconscious. North Star staff did not comply with the subsequent DCS investigation, records show.
- A "Letter of Concern" was issued in September of 2021 after the state found that North Star staff was allowing youth to harass and say inappropriate things to a resident while she was in crisis.
- DCS did not take action in November of 2021 after a report was made alleging a boy was going onto the girl's side of North Star's campus without permission, missing school and smoking marijuana.
- In April of 2022, DCS issued another "Letter of Violation" finding North Star did not submit an incident report as required by policy.
- In January of 2022, DCS declined to take action after a community member complained about repeated substance abuse by the teen residents.
- In May of 2022, DCS issued a "Corrective Action Plan" after North Star's staffing ratios were too low, violating state requirements. According to the report, "Mountain View Satellite has been out of compliance with Article 74, specifically as to staff ratios. At the time of the investigation, staff ratios were one to two staff per shift, with a client population of thirty-nine."
- In September of this year, days after a teen resident was allegedly shot and killed by another inside the Mountain View group home, the state issued North Star another "Letter of Concern", confirming residents were using drugs on campus and stashing guns and weapons in their rooms. They also found that a teen overdosed twice in one week and on one of the nights, North Star staff did not answer the phone.
Complaints validate former employees' claims
Multiple former North Star employees have come forward to 12News and detailed horror stories they experienced while working in the group homes.
"I've been saying something for a long time," said Kent Miller, a former employee. "These are young kids' lives who are affected because someone's not doing their job."
“I put the same blame on DCS as I would put on North Star," said Amelia Lopez, another former employee.
Employees say North Star was routinely short-staffed. Josh Weiss, a North Star spokesperson, hired after the homicide in September, told 12News North Star's facilities have always been in compliance with all staffing ratios set by DCS and said it's "completely false" to say they were understaffed.
DCS complaints, however, show North Star was disciplined by the state earlier this year for failing to meet required staffing ratios.
“I mean, they've closed places down for sexual abuse of a minor because, you know, it's like, but they're not going to close a place down for someone who dies?” Miller said.
September's homicide inside the group home prompted a special committee in the state legislature to hold an emergency meeting where DCS Director Mike Faust was called in.
“At the end of the day, the accountability sits with me," Faust said during the meeting.
Lawmakers pressed Faust, asking why he had allowed North Star to continue its operations.
“It would have been a heck of a lot easier, as I said in the committee, to walk in and say I shut them down. I did my part. But does that help kids? It really doesn't," Faust said.
When reached for comment about the complaints obtained by 12News, DCS and North Star released the following similar statements:
“We are committed to and are continuing to work with North Star, law enforcement, and the community to resolve any areas of continued concern," said Darren DaRonco, a spokesman for DCS.
"North Star is compliant with all State and DCS regulations and we are, and are committed to continuing to work with DCS, law enforcement, and the community to resolve any areas of concern," said Josh Weiss, a spokesman for North Star.
Sen. Nancy Barto, who sat on the committee, also released a statement to 12News about their investigation:
"In September, we convened the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on the Department of Child Safety to investigate what occurred at the NorthStar Group home.
Given the sensitivity of the situation and the high precautions that the department is taking in the aftermath of this horrific incident, I am still trying to get some concrete responses on what happened and what we need to do moving forward to ensure our children's safety and to avoid incidents like this in the future.”
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