DCS Director Greg McKay

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Arizona Department of Child Safety director Greg McKay will discuss the goals and mission he has for the office and the latest cases of child abuse that have created headlines.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," a discussion with the head of the state agency charged with protecting Arizona's children. And numbers were released today on the Super Bowl's economic impact on the Valley. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. The Tohono O'Odham tribe has filed a federal lawsuit in response to Arizona's fight against the tribe's planned casino near Glendale. The lawsuit asks for a preliminary injunction that would allow the tribe to open a casino by the end of the year. This comes after the state gaming department announced it would not certify the new casino claiming the tribe committed fraud during gaming negotiations by hiding its plans for a casino in the Phoenix metro area. The lawsuit seeks $200 million in lost income due to delays caused by the state.

TED SIMONS: Justice Rebecca White Berch will retire this year. Berch will likely step down in September, she was named to the Supreme Court by Governor Hull in 2002, and served as Chief Justice from 2009 to 2014. Governor Doug Ducey will select a successor from a list of vetted applicants.

TED SIMONS: DCS is charged with protecting abused and neglected children in Arizona. It was formed as an independent agency after the repeated and high profile problems of Child Protective Services.

GREG MCKAY: Thank you

TED SIMONS: Greg McKay, thank you for being here. We've got a lot of questions to ask, we talked about the predecessor, and DCS is here. What's changed?

GREG MCKAY: Lots has changed. We're looking at many things as far as stabilizing this organization and moving forward. The major change was when Governor Brewer issued the proclamation that removed the Division of Children, Youth and Family from the Department of Economic Security to a stand-alone Department of Child Safety. A lot of work went into getting a new free-standing agency that kind of flew alone outside of the umbrella agency we used to be under. It's ours to make now and a lot of work went into making that.

TED SIMONS: And why CPS needed to go, what are you saying? Why did a change have to be made?

GREG MCKAY: Well, I don't think this they had to go. I think that there was some restructuring and I think more of an emphasis on the core elements of what we did. Being contained within a Department of Economic Security, was helpful in certain respects. But in some respects having an autonomous agency with the sole purpose of ensuring child safety, seeking faster permanent thency, helping to strengthen families I think was a good thing, and it was good for our staff to have a new culture of change a theory of change to move towards being a proud workforce. We've got an important job, it's a hard job and thankless job for so many people. I think the exclusivity of having our own agency dedicated to that mission is an important step in the right direction.

TED SIMONS: Were there lessons learned? And are there lessons that can be utilized from CPS and especially the failings of CPS?

GREG MCKAY: Certainly. This is -- the problems of CPS and DCS and child welfare overall have been growing for years. The problems started back in the early 2000s and child welfare has always been a very challenged government service protecting children and dealing with struggling families. So the lessons learned are, some of the lessons that we're learning are, you know, everything is about volume. And the amount of volume that our government agency takes in, and is responsible for, and the amount of capacity the system has to deal with that volume. And that's from the amount of workforce we have to the amount of foster homes and foster families we have, to the amount of courtrooms and judges and attorneys we have. So it really is a system that requires shared accountability, a responsibility that goes way outside the walls of Child Protective Services or now DCS, to make sure the system's run appropriately. We're still learning those lessons but mainly we have to decide what are we responsible for. In that we are mandated to do that and do that well, every time, to the best of our ability, and not try to be responsible for all things all the time. There's a lot of fear and there's a lot of what if and a lot of unknowns. One of the biggest problems with our workforce, when they go home at night, can they close their eyes and rest knowing they did the right thing or didn't do the right thing, and what that potential tragic outcome might be. It's a daunting position to be in.

TED SIMONS: You're not the first DCS director, the original director was let go. There were concerns with how inactive cases were dealt with even under his -- why do you think he was let go? And why do you think you were the replacement?

GREG MCKAY: Well, I don't focus, I wasn't part of those conversations. I don't focus on past leaders or predecessors. I look forward to what do we need to to succeed now, moving forward. And from the point that I came in on February 11th, that's what we've been doing. Restructuring, creating a new leadership team, flattening out the organizational structure, trying to bring valuable resources back into the fold to do the vital job that we have, the mission critical functions that we have. And trying to stabilize the workforce has been really a massive thing. Because with employees, every time an employee leaves this department that continuum of care is broken. And a child and family ends up suffering from that. That's something we know we have to get a handle on to better our communities.

TED SIMONS: Why are employees leaving DCS? We hear reports a lot of people are leaving, some are being asked to leave of their own volition.

GREG MCKAY: DCS and CPS before that, child welfare overall always carries a high attrition rate as far as employment goes. It's a hard, thankless job. Line level staff, supervisory staff, when people don't feel empowered by leadership, because leadership isn't stable, how do they feel stable in their daily work? It creates a lot of churn in the comfort level of people who come to work every day. Hours are long, the caseload volumes are immense, the salary is not great, and the liability morally and civilly on this workforce is immense. Couple that with administrative changes in leadership and philosophies and direction, very frustrating to a workforce, not only a workforce but community, the whole larger community is frustrated by these changes.

TED SIMONS: You mentioned caseloads and you've mentioned money and you've mentioned a lot of things there that make for an anxious workforce, for lack of a better term. How do you change those things, get the money in there, drop the caseloads and keep people from leaving the agency?

GREG MCKAY: First of all, what I said when we first started talking, over the years there have been many, many tragedies in our community and in every community around the United States. And those tragedies, when it comes to children, they generate emotion and reactions by legislators, policymakers, communities. And over time that has caused almost an overlegislation, overregulation of how much government is required to do when it comes to protecting children. When you get into a position where we are required to do too much for every case, with no discretion, then it leaves very little room for focusing efforts on true vulnerabilities. And that's a frustration. And so one, we want to responsibly look at how much are we letting come in the front door? How much are we making reports at our central intake center, our child abuse hotline, and do they need to be reports. Trying to balance out things we need to go out and be involved in, investigate, deliver services for, remove children for. And what internally we're doing over and beyond what we should, based on the unknown fear factor.

TED SIMONS: That kind of sounds like what happened in his situation in that some of these cases -- I don't know if they called it a triage or what they called it -- however they handled it was criticized. You were brought in. How can you change that approach? Sounds like that was what he was doing, somewhat similar to what you are doing. That is accurate?

GREG MCKAY: I don't know exactly what the technicality of Director Flanigan's plan and my plan. Triage is based on vulnerability as a way we can look at things. But one of the things we can district court now, we know Arizona take incidence almost more reports for investigation than any other place in the United States of America. That causes system strain all the way down the line. It caused an overloaded caseload, an overloaded system of care, it causes too many to take care, and the permanency goes out of the system, longer and longer and longer. We have to come upon a responsible triage system, when it comes to certain ways we deal with crisis. Whenever you're managing through crisis, it's very hard to grow and improve culturally and operationally because everybody's running around trying to quell the things that are going to pop up and really cause serious problems.

TED SIMONS: And cause people to leave the agency. We're hearing reports and things, there's no rhyme or season for some of the fires going on there. It's kind of a my way or the highway administration, if you will. Is that valid?

GREG MCKAY: I don't believe so at all. There is a problem with that inherently. Personnel rules and laws prohibit discussing why an employee was dismissed from service. You're not allowed to have that conversation. Coworkers are not allowed to know what took place. There's no coaching or breaking down that information and understanding why someone left. What that does is, when somebody was here today and gone tomorrow, and there's no reasonable explanation, people start to look around and say, when am I next? I think that's inherently a personnel flawed rule. When it comes to my way or the highway, absolutely not. I have a critical mission here involving 50,000 reports of abuse and neglect this year. Over 17,000 children in care. The time to get them out of the system and into a family, whether it's their own or a new adoptive family, is running years. We can't afford to have things that aren't mission critical working towards that common goal every day. What is our mission? That children thrive in family environments, free from abuse and neglect. We have to strengthen families and achieve permanency. To do that I need a compensate workforce that's able to go out there and engage families. If I don't have that, I have to build that. In some situations we've had to lose some staff to do that.

TED SIMONS: It seems like it never ends. We've had the report of a caseworker leaving a business card in a door, a 22-month-old ended up dead, left in a closet, a younger sibling removed but not her. Again, no real explanation for that. How do you explain these cases still coming around?

GREG MCKAY: There are two cases there and they are a little bit different. The fact of the matter is, is that people do horrific things. Human behavior is completely unpredictable. And we have to be really cautious about taking ownership of the evil that people do to children. But that being said, this is a Department of Child Safety. We have a statutory mandate to protect children and ensure their safety west of the Cascades we don't, we're responsible. So in the first case you mentioned, the business card on the door, people are driving towards the wrong objective. So they know that they get a report and they have to meet a response time within 48 hours. They want to get out there and say I've checked that box, I've moved on, I've done what I was supposed to do. The right answer is, I don't check a box until I see a human being and see if that human being is okay. So one of our employees went out, knocked on the door, left a card, checked that box, response time met, never returned. The outcome was catastrophic. There's no remediating that. We are absolutely, absolutely, we failed there. Now, obviously a bad person did that, and the Police Department is dealing with that bad person. But you know what, we didn't do our duty. We need to do our duty in the future. The other case you cited, there was some other issues at play there in our department and that particular situation did take some additional steps legally to try to locate and secure those other children and the outcome was tragic again. We're looking at that case still from a perspective of exactly what all the breakdowns were. Again, many systems are touching these cases, not just the Department of Child Safety. I'm really begging for some real shared accountability from all organizations in our communities to really help us. We can't do this alone.

TED SIMONS: Before we go, there are some thoughts now regarding reunification, that there needs to be more done, parents need to be watched closer. The siblings of the kids in the system need to be watched closer. Do you think drug testing, required extended counseling for parents, these sorts of things, are those the kinds of things you think are necessary and should be enacted?

GREG MCKAY: Yes, I do. The thing is, we have to get to a place where we operate based on an objective set of facts. We don't go out with a theory recollect cal position that children belong with birth families or other families. We don't do that. We measure the facts neutrally. We articulate those facts and drive actions. If those actions are reunification efforts, family support, we do do drug testing in those scenarios. People have to drug test. We deliver services to families with those types of things. We support reunification efforts and all those programs that go into that. But frankly, there are waiting lists to getting that done. That's causing the court systems to back up and kids to stay in the system longer and longer and longer. The court keeps extending the case plans out and kids are in the system far too long.

TED SIMONS: I think you were quoted in the oversight meeting as saying things might get worse before they get better. Do you remember saying that?

GREG MCKAY: Yes, yes possibly. I'll tell you why. For a very long time there's been root causes to the problems of this particular organization. Cultural and operational root causes. And I think that there's been times with all the pressure, people are sick of hearing about this. It is emotionally heartwrenching to hear about continuous child abuse and neglect, continuous problem, problem, problem. They want answers. But these answers don't just come like that. And what I'm committed to is really saying, look, we are pulling the Band-Aid, we're looking at the underlying wound of this place and we are going treat it in a way that it is going to be sustainable and improved long term. We're not just going to do things to capture some type of quick artificial metric to say, hey, we did this, because it's intense, the pressure is on. I am committed to doing the real things, delivering the real goods so that down the road our system is better it for. Our children are better it for, our communities are better it for and trust is regained in our organization and our staff stays employed here because they are proud to do it.

TED SIMONS: Good to have you here.

GREG MCKAY: Thanks for having me.

Greg McKay:Arizona Department of Child Safety Director

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