PHOENIX — In 2019, at least 59 children died by homicide in Arizona, according to the state’s Child Fatality Review Program. Nearly half had at least one prior report to the Department of Child Safety.
The 12 News I-Team analyzed more than five years of DCS child fatality reports and found it wasn't just one year: The department had prior involvement with the family in nearly half of cases where children later died.
Each time a child dies by abuse or neglect, DCS reviews the case to ensure their own policies and procedures are working the way they were designed.
Still, high-profile child homicides raise questions about whether the department too often misses warning signs for some of the state’s most vulnerable.
“Our number one priority is to keep kids safe,” DCS Director Mike Faust said in an interview with 12 News.
“We're about identifying safety threats, managing those safety threats, and then from there making the most reasonable decision we can with the facts that are available.”
The 12 News I-Team’s analysis of 165 child fatality reports since 2015 showed that the department repeatedly found allegations of abuse or neglect “unsubstantiated” before a child was killed.
“I'm not going to say it was the wrong call,” Faust told 12 News' Mark Curtis. “When we were in there making a decision, we've made a decision that we believe to be the right call. Because it's not any one person making a decision. It's a consensus decision.”
Faust said that after a child dies, his team reviews its process and he provides services to support DCS employees.
“You can't describe the feeling that that brings (when a child dies),” Faust said. “What we need to do, and we always do, is make sure that we wrap those folks with supports, and then we objectively look at that situation, because we want to learn. Now again, I can't say that a mistake was made. And if a mistake was made, we take necessary actions.”
DCS reports they investigate tens of thousands of child neglect or abuse reports each year. The department removes children in the most severe cases but may also provide a family a safety plan or community services.
Faust said his team does their best to manage the danger.
“These situations are very dynamic. They're very complicated,” Faust said. “At the end of the day, it's very unfortunate that somebody chose to make decisions that had an evil outcome. You know, the best that we can do is make sure that our staff are trained, have the tools, the support, all the necessary elements to go in and collect the facts, to make an objective decision… And you know what, unfortunately, bad things happen. Bad people do bad things, it does happen.”
Faust became DCS director in 2019, but began his work with the state in 2015, not long after the department was established as a stand-alone agency.
Then-Governor Jan Brewer dissolved the previous child protective services agency and signed legislation during a special session that launched DCS.
“With this historic legislation, we begin to reverse a longstanding crisis and implement long-lasting change,” Brewer said at the time. “Through necessary resources, safeguards, checks and balances and oversight – as well as a clearly defined core mission of child safety – there will be no room for excuses, secrets or faceless decision-makers.
“There will be no more mixed messages and competing priorities. Finally, Arizona will have a child safety system with the capability and culture to protect our children.”
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Nearly seven years later, the former governor worries that there’s still more work to do.
“I look at every child that's under the custody are involved with protective services as Arizona's children, they are our children,” Brewer said. “They’re every citizens’ children. It's our responsibility to make sure that they're safe, and that they're well taken care of and that they're protected.”
Brewer said she wants to see greater financial investment from the legislature and a push for more mental health and domestic violence prevention in the community.
“When it comes to something as important as Arizona's children, it is a number one priority,” Brewer said. “It just is.”
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