DCS Director Greg McKay

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Recent media coverage of children being removed from their homes because of drug use by parents shows the balance the Department of Child Safety is trying to strike between protecting children while respecting parental rights. That’s just one issue DCS director Greg McKay will talk about.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," the head of the state department of child safety talks about the balance between child protection and parental rights.

Ted Simons: And we'll get an update of the state's bioscience industry. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

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

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. The U.S. department of justice will investigate how the Maricopa county recorder's office handled Arizona's presidential preference election last month. The justice department's civil rights division sent a letter to county recorder Helen Purcell asking for a variety of information, including a complete list of registered voters at the time of the election, procedures used in determining the location and number of polling places, including the reasons for the reduction of places to vote, procedures involved in recording party registration, and the county's response to concerns about long lines, along with allegations that the lines may have disproportionately burdened minority voters. The county has until April 22nd to comply, and county elections director Karen Osborne says that the responses will be made public.

Ted Simons: And Arizona secretary of state Michele Reagan's actions on voting day are raising questions, specifically her offer to take ballots from the governor's office to polling places. Regan had previously called such actions, referred to as ballot-harvesting, as an opportunity for fraud. Ballot harvesting will be a felony later this year by way of a new law signed by the governor. Reagan says she did nothing wrong because the practice now is legal. She also says once it does become illegal, it will not apply to her because she says elections officials are trusted to handle ballots and that the new law exempts election officials engaged in their official duties.

Ted Simons: The Arizona department of child safety was created to better attack the problem of child abuse, but balancing the needs of an abused or neglected child with the rights of the child's parents is still an issue. Joining us now is DCS director Greg McKay. Good to see you again, thanks for being here. Let's talk about this. The attorney general's opinion on the state ombudsman report. The ombudsman said basically nope, you can't interview the parents, unless it's abuse or abandonment. That is my statute. You thought this wasn't a very good reasoning here and it sounds like the A.G. agreed. Give us the background on this.

Greg McKay: Yeah, so years ago, statute from about 1980 allowed dcs or cps at the time to do interviews where they could interview a child when the allegation was abuse or abandonment. Moving forward into the '90s, abandonment wasn't really the word of choice and it was abuse and neglect. Moving into the future we have a few statutes that delegate our authority and in those statutes, some statutes say abuse and neglect, some statutes say abuse and abandonment, but bottom line is our mandate by statute is to ensure child safety, always protect the child. So when it came down to a statutory interpretation or disagreement so to speak between the ombudsman and us at the department we erred on the side of child protection and child safety and we're real glad that the attorney generals found in our favor.

Ted Simons: The interpretation says abuse and abandonment but you're saying neglect needs to be included here. What is -- define neglect.

Greg McKay: So neglect constitutes 70% to 80% of all of our reports of maltreatment in Arizona and what the misconception is that neglect means poverty or parenting choices that might not be up to somebody else's regard in terms of reasonable parenting. But in reality, neglect is a whole variety of really serious issues, a parent that gives birth to a drug-addicted child, that's a neglect case. A parent who's afflicted with a drug addiction, that's a neglect case. Sexual abuse cases come in sometimes as neglect cases. It's not something that we could not investigate or not be able to interview on because they are very dangerous in certain circumstances.

Ted Simons: So in current practices, when can you not interview a child without the parent's, you know, authority and are there times where, you know, the parent's authority when they say no, you go away?

Greg McKay: Well, right now, statute, and now as interpreted by the A.G.'s office says we can do those interviews of children in both abuse and neglect cases without parental consent. And if that child is a victim or a witness to an event it's important for an investigator to be able to get kind of an unabated story as to what took place so we can find facts, so we can protect the child. At the same time, however, we are constantly sensitive to a parent's rights. We know sometimes people use our child abuse hotline to get at their neighbor, get at their ex, get at a friend who they're upset with. That abuse of the system results in us having to go out and do work that we shouldn't be doing and also it really is an infringement on the rights of a parent who did nothing wrong. So we're always weighing that delicate balance and we approach things and we have to be diligent and we have to have good faith in our exercise of trying to find out facts, what happened, while balancing a parent's right to parent in a way they see fit.

Ted Simons: We should note that the attorney general's opinion did not impact interviews regarding the sibling of a child at the center of a complaint living with the child at the center of the complaint and a child who is the center who contacts your department. Those interviews were okay before the opinion, they are still okay now, correct?

Greg McKay: Yes, absolutely. And we were faced with a tough choice before Christmas and that choice was as brought to us by the ombudsman was stop the process immediately. Do not interview children anymore without a parent consenting to that. So we weighed on the side of child safety and protection and we pushed forward and we're glad that it came out in our favor, it would have been some serious liability if the alternative was found.

Ted Simons: There are those who aren't happy with the attorney general's opinion. They say this basically gives your department and your employees too much authority. Do they have a point?

Yeah, I do. And to my earlier point, the last thing we want to do is encroach on a family, maybe interview children separate from them, when there's nothing wrong, when they're not abusive, when that child is not vulnerable, it's the last thing we want to do. One of the things we're pursuing here in Arizona to kind of get in front of that is something called family assessment response. Or some states call that differential response, and it's a way that if investigations, if reports come to us by way of our hotline and alleges abuse and risk or vulnerability and child might be in danger, then we have to investigate and take it down the normal traditional path. But in cases where families are maybe challenged with poverty and they can't care for their child, they can't provide a safe home for their child for reasons other than physical abuse or intentional abuse, then we approach them more in a collaborative setting, we reach out, we make an appointment, we call them, we see what do we need to do to get you strengthened so you can keep your own child in your own home without any further intervention from us.

Ted Simons: Kind of a lower level - for lower level cases.

Greg McKay: Yes, that's something we're working on now and we're hoping that's going to start up probably about the beginning of next calendar year hopefully.

Ted Simons: For those who think that there should be no contact, unless there's probably cause of a crime occurring. That should be more the level as opposed to a phone call here or innuendo there. Again, they're looking out for the family first and they're worried about government intervention. Again, do they have a point?

Greg McKay: Well, sure but you know what how do you get to probable cause without an investigation? So if somebody and this is the hard thing. People get upset sometimes, when our staff goes out and does an investigation and turns out it was a custody related thing or neighbor dispute or something like that. But you know to us we're receiving an allegation. We make a report of an allegation and we have to go out and find that fact and it works on the flip side. We have to find probable cause to say that the allegation of abuse is not here or by probable cause and by fact finding we find that, in fact, this is something we can substantiate as abuse and move forward but without the right to interview, which is the basic first step in every process of investigation, then we thwart our ability to find out even what happened.

Ted Simons: Do you see and I can't see how you wouldn't see this because we talk about this year after year, the pendulum swinging back and forth to parental rights, child safety. You start emphasizing child safety, you get folks saying you're taking kids out of the home unnecessarily. You start then emphasizing parental rights and we have hideous headlines. How do you balance that? How do you find the middle?

Greg McKay: It needs to be in the middle. You find the middle by just good faith exercises, using tools, finding facts, the most objective set of principles that you can find to help our workforce make those decisions. The bottom line is it is very double-edged. If our workforce, they go to places that the average Arizona citizen sitting at home watching right now wouldn't dream of walking into these homes without a gun or an army so to speak. But our case workers are doing that, and then they're faced with a really dire situation and a decision that needs to be made. If they leave a child behind then it's like fingers crossed how can we get help there to mitigate the problem now? Or they remove a child knowing that that's going to inflict trauma on that child and family. So they walk that line, it's a delicate balance but we do need to find a middle and we need to act on facts and principles and not emotions and fear and whatever way the wind is blowing right now. We've got to stabilize that.

Ted Simons: I can't let you go without asking you about the back log of cases. How was that going? Are you making progress?

Greg McKay: Excellent, I'm glad you did thank you. So I think last time we talked, when I started last year, back log was at 16,200 and climbing. It never stopped climbing for the prior five years. Today, the back log is 10,500. And more importantly, every single month this workforce is completing more than is coming in so 5,000 reports came into our organization, they only completed 3,000 and that happened month over month over month, year after year after year, it's like credit card debt, compound interest. Now, the back log is down to 10,500. But more importantly, those cases are being triaged for safety, we're not just playing with numbers.

Ted Simons: I was going to say how are you making sure that the back log has been cut but the work still is being done?

Greg McKay: So bottom line is these are being completed, not just activated so to speak. So this isn't about someone going and in typing a sentence, and now, it's off the radar. This is being done, completed. And what we did when we came in is we found there were 16,200 back logged cases which nobody knew what child was really in danger, how high the risk was and again, these are cases that got started, completed up to a certain point, and then never closed. So we ended up making a triage that says what children were born with drug exposure? What children are under five years of age, what children have homes with domestic violence in them? How many priors? We now we part out those risk factors and send our people out to work those highest risk ones first, so they're doing great work. I mean, about 200% increase in productivity year over year by the great work they're doing. We're thrilled about it but lots more to be done.

Ted Simons: Indeed and last time we talked, morale was a problem and I asked you about it. It seemed like it was a real problem. Has it improved?

Greg McKay: I would like to say morale has improved but our volume is still high. We have 135,000 calls came to us last year. Of those, 51,000 became full investigations. That's a massive workload. Plus, we're carrying along now still 10,000 old reports. When we get to the point where somebody can come to work and do the work without being completely overwhelmed and really engage people in the way that they were trained and the way they wanted to do as social workers then morale will improve and I think I'm seeing a lot of increases in morale. But bottom line that caseload needs to get under control and we're seeing that's starting to happen so we're really thrilled about that.

Ted Simons: It's good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

Greg McKay: Thank you, Ted, I appreciate the time.

Greg McKay: Department of Child Safety Director

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