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Abused and neglected children in Pima County are placed in group homes and emergency shelters rather than foster families at the highest rate in Arizona and more than twice the national average.

Group care, where several children live in a home run by a staff, should be used only for children who need therapy or rehabilitation, said Tracey Feild, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Child Welfare Strategy Group.

“You can paint the walls as brightly as you want, but it’s not a family and it’s not a home,” Feild said. “If they don’t need therapy, they shouldn’t be in a group home. They should be with a family.”

Putting a child in a group home should be temporary — a transition to returning home or to foster care, for example. But in Arizona, records show that 90 percent of children and teens in group care aren’t there because they need these extra services — they’re there because of the state’s critical shortage of foster homes.

As of May 2014, an average of 2,101 children and teens were being placed in group care each month statewide, with only 10 percent in therapeutic group homes or residential treatment. Pima County, as of March, had 741 licensed foster families with 1,709 total beds — and 3,356 children in out-of-home care, state records show.

Some relief could be coming. The Arizona Department of Child Safety in August asked for greater flexibility with its foster-care funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the waiver was approved last week.

ADCS Director Charles Flanagan applied for the waiver in order to reduce the state’s reliance on group homes and shelters. He’ll do that by focusing on recruiting and retaining more foster families, he said, as well as improving services that help children stay home while the family gets help.

Keeping more children and teens out of group care would be a critical step for Arizona, experts say.

A glance through just about any scholarly piece on the topic shows the disturbing variety of things that can, and do, happen to children at higher rates in group homes: sexual abuse, sex trafficking, physical or emotional abuse by staffers or other children.

Studies have also shown a higher risk for delinquency as well as over-reliance on psychotropic medication to keep children from acting out.

Pima County leads the state in group placement, with 31 percent of children here winding up in group care the first time they are taken into state custody. In Maricopa County, the rate is close to 20 percent, and in Pinal County, it’s about 12 percent, records show.

Nationally, the average number of displaced children in group care is 15 percent, the Casey Foundation reports.

“There are plenty of states that have gotten that number down much lower, and plenty are at 5, 6, 7 percent,” Feild said.

Of those children in group care statewide as of May, 8 percent were younger than a year old, 11 percent were ages 1 to 5, 20 percent were ages 6 to 12, and 50 percent were ages 13 to 17.

When a state relies on group care at such high rates, Feild said, it’s usually because it has “greatly underinvested in their foster-care system or their kinship care.”

That’s what happened in Arizona, where a lack of foster homes has led to a reliance on group care.

Crushing workloads for child-welfare workers coupled with a stressed system often result in foster parents and adoptive parents being poorly supported and taken for granted, said Flanagan, who has headed the child-welfare agency for less than a year.

“We’re all focused on producing better outcomes. Is it fast enough for me? No,” Flanagan said.

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