Are Arizona Kids ‘More At Risk’ Than Ever Due To COVID-19, Recession?

By Christina Estes
Published: Thursday, July 23, 2020 - 6:05am
Updated: Thursday, July 23, 2020 - 5:52pm

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Research shows economic uncertainty is not only stressful for adults but can be harmful for children, putting them at increased risk of abuse.

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, Arizona projected a budget shortfall of $1 billion. Then, it was adjusted to half a billion. But with no end in sight, it’s really an educated guess at this point. And that worries people who work with vulnerable families.

This is a look at the impact from the last recession and what’s different this time.

The Great Recession

For Susie Huhn, the financial pain of the Great Recession remains fresh.  

“We got hit hard in a very short period of time,” she said.

Huhn is CEO of Tucson-based Casa de los Ninos, a nonprofit that provides prevention and intervention services for at-risk families. In 2008, Casa de los Ninos relied heavily on state contracts. Huhn says they lost about 75% of income in a matter of days.

“You almost got scared to answer the phone anymore,” she said. “It was like so yep, this program is shutting down, we’re stopping this contract, we’re stopping this contract and the only contract they did not stop on us was our crisis shelter.”

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In a 2009 letter to the governor, the Department of Economic Security Director wrote that budget cuts "have impacted tens of thousands of Arizona residents and seriously damaged the state's social services safety net."

Casa de Los Ninos took in children removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. During the recession, as more families struggled with finances, so did the state. In a September 2009 letter to the governor, the Department of Economic Security Director listed some of the damage: drastic cuts to prevention services, a 20% decrease in reimbursement rates for foster families, and a 17% reduction in the number of state workers who investigate child abuse and neglect reports.

→ Effort Aims To Help Families Facing 'Astronomical' Stress

Today’s Concerns

“We cannot see another round of cuts to children and families,” said Molly Dunn, director of child welfare for Children’s Action Alliance.

Dunn worries most about two groups: children who are aging out of the foster care system, entering a pandemic and recession without support and kinship families — those are people taking  care of other family members’ children, like grandparents raising grandkids.

“And with COVID-19 and job loss and everything that everyone is experiencing, I think it might make it more difficult for these families to step up and prevent children from coming into foster care,” she said.

Kris Jacober has the same concern for licensed foster families that are not biologically related to children in their care. A former foster parent, Jacober now runs Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation. She worries the extraordinary circumstances will lead some families to call it quits. 

“Families are trying to work at home, educate the children in their home and if one or two, or [if] the children you're fostering becomes too much of a challenge it’s something that’s easy to take off your plate,” she said. “It’s not the right thing, it’s not mentally easy but operationally you can make that go away.”

It’s been more than four months since Arizona schools closed. Four months without teachers and staff having eyes on kids who are hurting. Four months without teachers and staff reporting suspected cases of abuse and neglect.    

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In a 2009 letter to Arizona's governor, the Department of Economic Security Director said in-home services contracts were cut up to 75% while other contracts were eliminated altogether.

“I feel like kids across the state, in this time, are at more risk than they have ever been,” Jacober said. 

Traditionally, the Arizona Department of Child Safety sees a rise in reports when kids return from holiday and summer breaks. When schools eventually reopen, Jacober and others expect a surge. Service providers are preparing and hope state leaders are, too.

“I would love to see us be like other states that are deciding to direct state dollars toward shoring up these children and families during this time but you know, that’s not Arizona,” said Dunn.

Huhn said Casa de los Ninos learned from the Great Recession. They increased private funding and now rely much less on state contracts.

Arizona has changed, too. Since the financial crisis, the state has grown a billion dollar rainy day fund. And this time around, the federal government has doled out more stimulus funds.

But there remain many unknowns — like how many jobs will be lost, how many businesses forever closed and just how bad will the budget shortfall be? Huhn says her hope is that Arizona will not be shortsighted.  

“Because if we don’t prepare to meet that need it’s only going to cost us more money down the road,” she said. “We can spend it in juvenile corrections, we can spend it in prisons, we can spend it a lot of other ways that are really going to be expensive.” 

Some call it a choice: pay now or pay later. It’s unclear which path Arizona will take.

"Because if we don’t prepare to meet that need it’s only going to cost us more money down the road. We can spend it in juvenile corrections, we can spend it in prisons, we can spend it a lot of other ways that are really going to be expensive."
— Susie Huhn, Casa de Los Ninos

Resources

If you suspect abuse or neglect call the Arizona hotline at 888-SOS-CHILD (888-767-2445) or, if the child is in immediate danger, call 911.

If you're unsure whether to report, need more information or want to speak to a counselor you can call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453). Trained counselors are also available for live chats at childhelphotline.org.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, you can call the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence help line at 602-279-2980 weekdays between 8:30 am and 5 p.m. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233.

If you are a victim of sexual violence you can call the local hotline at 602-279-2980 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24 hours a day at 800-656-4673.

If you have parenting/caregiving questions about children five years and younger call the free Birth to Five Helpline Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to talk to a child development specialist.

If you or someone you know needs utility or rental assistance, emergency food, mental health services or other help in Arizona, dial 211 or 877-211-8661. Community and Information Referral Services are available 24 hours a day.

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