Critic chosen by Arizona governor-elect to lead child protection agency

This article is published in collaboration with ProPublica, a nonprofit editorial office that investigates abuses of power. Register to receive Biggest ProPublica Stories as soon as they are published.

Arizona Governor-elect Kathy Hobbs is leading the state’s child protection agency in a radically different direction after a ProPublica-NBC News investigation of racial disparities affecting the local child protection system.

Hobbs, a Democrat, announced this week that she has chosen Matthew Stewart, an advocate for the black community, to be the new head of the Arizona Department of Child Safety. Stewart previously worked at DCS for a decade as a curator and head of learning before leaving in 2020, later saying he was ashamed of the racial disproportion he saw in his work.

Matthew Stewart
Matthew Stuart.NBC News

Stewart, who is the son of the longtime senior pastor of Phoenix’s most prominent black church, will become the department’s first black leader, replacing current director Mike Faust. Faust was nominated by outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican.

The Arizona Child Protection System has long disproportionately investigated black families. According to a ProPublica-NBC News investigation that highlights Stewart’s role, one in three black kids in Metro Phoenix have come across a DCS investigation in just the past five years. Faust said the department has made progress during this time, but news organizations have found that while the overall number of investigations has declined, the racial disparity between white and black families has only widened.

After leaving DCS, Stewart formed Our Sister, Our Brother, a community organization that fought with the department for fairer treatment of blacks as well as low-income parents.

This fall, he told ProPublica and NBC News that generational poverty and the resulting family trauma, which in some cases can lead to problems with parents and, in turn, DCS investigations, has been “in preparation for centuries.” Should parents believe, he asked, that once the department takes custody of their children, “these problems will be solved?”

“I just don’t think DCS can do it,” he said.

Stewart will now run this very agency.

Stewart was not immediately available for an interview. But in a statement, he said he will strengthen the state’s partnerships with community organizations and hopes that, under his team’s leadership, the department “becomes a place to encourage and promote community healing,” in part by providing more resources to families in need.

In a separate statement, the Governor-elect said Stewart knows how to keep children safe, based on his experience at DCS, and how to get help and keep families together. “He is a leader who ensures we can continue to transform our community systems to be responsive to the needs of the communities we serve,” Hobbs said.

Child protection experts in the state and families affected by the system praised Stewart’s choice, though some questioned how much change he could make even as he holds the highest position at DCS.

“Matthew Stewart was very focused on keeping families safe together,” said Claire Luge, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Arizona, which provides services and education to prevent child abuse. But, she noted, like all DCS directors, he “will face the challenge of leading an agency that is constantly criticized for either too much or too little separation of children from their families.”

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform, a human rights group, noted that “Arizona is incredibly difficult to fix.” He pointed to the state’s previous Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, whose reformist choice to head DCS’s predecessor agency failed to correct the system’s racial disproportionality two decades ago. “Let’s see how times have changed,” Wexler said.

Tyra Smith, a parent from Phoenix who has firsthand experience with the child protection system and has worked directly with Stewart as a parent advocate, said she is looking forward to Stewart’s leadership but worries that taking on a new role might change people.

“I just don’t want to be forgotten,” she said.

How America’s Child Protection System Traps Struggling Families

  • Mandatory reporting was supposed to stop child abuse. Instead, he punishes poor families.
  • CPS workers search millions of homes a year. Mom, who resisted, paid the price.
  • For black families in Phoenix, child protection investigations are a constant threat.
  • Child Protective Services “Death Penalty”: After 6 months, some parents lose their children forever.

Stewart’s first order of business will most likely be recruiting new senior staff; he has been critical of several current senior DCS officials.

He also expressed his excitement about the introduction of a new “Culture Brokers” program that will ensure that a trusted community member of the same race is present when DCS social workers show up at a family’s door.

But Stewart will be hampered in part by the fact that the Legislature, still in Republican hands, is unlikely to adjust its anti-poverty program to get more economic aid and support services to families in need to prevent cases of child abuse before they will happen. Arizona currently spends most of its Social Security budget not directly helping low-income parents, but on their DCS investigations, ProPublica reported in 2021.

Stewart will also have to focus on more than just racial inequality: DCS has been plagued by other scandals in recent years, as well as child deaths. In one example, outgoing Principal Faust was questioned by lawmakers about reports of violence and drug use in the state’s foster care system, resulting in one teenager in a group home being shot and killed.

But for the dozens of black families in Metro Phoenix who spoke to ProPublica and NBC News this year, there is finally a sense that someone who looks like them, who has actually interacted with them, and who will listen to them, is now in a position of power. in a state where only two out of 90 state legislators are black. Many have said in interviews that they know Stewart understands the constant fear they feel in society, given that in Maricopa County, 63% of black children will have passed a DCS investigation by the time they turn 18.

After Hobbs defeated Kari Lake in the race for governor, Stewart told ProPublica and NBC News that “I think it’s good for us.” He noted that Hobbs’ experience as a social worker can give her “a value system and an openness to change that will help her manage and select counselors.”

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