Bill that would establish Foster Youth Permanency Project Team in Arizona gains Senate support


Hannah Saunders


Following House Bill 2704’s overwhelming support in the Arizona House last month, legislators in the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee unanimously voted to advance the bill during a hearing on Tuesday. HB 2704 would establish a Foster Youth Permanency Project Team, which would address permanent placement barriers for children who are likely to be in Department of Child Safety (DCS) custody by the time they turn 18, or allow them to begin participating in the Extended Foster Care Program.

Kendall Seal, vice president of policy at the Center for the Rights of Abused Children—a nonprofit organization that works to protect vulnerable youth in Arizona—said the bill would help the state take meaningful steps towards improving its foster care statistics.

“Too many children, as you all know, age out of the foster care system,” Seal said. “In fact, 19,000 children in this country age out of foster care. In Arizona, 730 exit without a home. While many of these teens are legally free for adoption, the reality is about four percent of those children age 16 or older will be adopted.”

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Seal discussed a former foster youth client he referred to as Zeke, who watched his peers age out of the foster care system, and struggled without the support of a family. According to Seal, one of Zeke’s friends was charged with armed robbery and incarcerated, while another was forced into prostitution and murdered. Zeke’s other peers fell into homelessness. 

HB 2704 is modeled after Georgia’s Cold Case Project, where attorneys review cases of youth who have been in the foster care system for long time periods, and are expected to be at risk of aging out of foster care without obtaining permanency with a family.

What they [established] was, in the first few years, a 20 to 25 percent placement of children. After a decade, that number jumped to 34 percent. So what that means is, out of 536 children, 182 of those kids found a family. And that’s a huge number within the child welfare space.”

— Seal

HB 2704 requires the Department of Child Safety (DCS) director to appoint DCS staff and volunteers with experience and expertise in the child welfare space to serve under the Foster Youth Permanency Project Team that would work to remove barriers related to permanency. The DCS director would also be required to appoint additional team members with relevant experience. HB 2074 would grant a project team access to all DCS documents and personnel necessary to perform team duties. The bill would create an individualized pathway for foster youth.

Chris Gustafson, chief legislative liaison for DCS, said the agency is exploring the creation of a program that would, rather than merely searching for a parent or guardian, tackle systematic barriers that are stopping individuals from caring for a child. Gustafson highlighted familial difficulties and arguments as an example of an area that DCS could work on to identify ways to mitigate those risks. 

Last month, DCS published its Semi-Annual Benchmark Progress Report, which highlights the need to reduce the state’s out-of-home (OOH) children, long-term cases, and inactive cases. Arizona had a historic high of 18,007 youths in the foster care system in 2016. But that number decreased to 9,123 (a 49 percent drop) in December 2023. The report states that the number of children entering OOH situations has also declined. 

“For example, 3,060 children entered care during the third and fourth quarters of (fiscal year 2023), while 3,879 children exited care during the same period. Yet, the number of children entering OOH care during the first and second quarters of (the fiscal year 2024) reporting period was 2,827, while 3,633 exited care during this period,” the report stated. 

The department encourages youth ages 18 to 20 to enroll in the Extended Foster Care Program to receive services and support as they transition into adulthood. DCS also said decreasing the number of youths in the program who are 17 or under is paramount. In December last year, 900 Arizona youths were in the program, according to the report. 

“The reduction in the number of children in out-of-home care is the result of several factors, including but not limited to, additional standardized process tools including supervisory administrative and case progress review checklists, standardized safety discussion guides, and training staff to better engage a family’s network to maintain children safely in the home,” the report stated. 

Those interested in learning more about health-related policy in Arizona can register to attend the 2024 Arizona State of Reform Health Policy Conference, which will be held at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown on May 14.

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