Several county workers investigating allegations of abuse and neglect in some of Arizona’s most struggling communities were reportedly fired last month, after they wore bright pink T-shirts to work declaring themselves a “professional kidnapper.”
The back of the public employee’s shirts, according to an article by child-welfare reporter Mary Jo Pitzl in the Arizona Republic on Tuesday asked: “Do you know where your children are?”
The story published on azcentral.com reported that the workers in the Prescott office of Yavapai County were apparently fired last month, after the Arizona Department of Child Safety learned about the T-shirts worn during work hours.
Frontline social workers investigating abuse and neglect allegations have some of the most emotionally taxing jobs in the child welfare field – work that can be both heartbreaking and high-stress, resulting in high turnover and burnout. The departures of social workers in Yavapai County, the newspaper reported, left just one investigator in its child safety office.
A photo obtained by the Republic showed several mask-wearing women in the parking lot of the Prescott office wearing the shirts, showing both the front and backs of the T-shirts. The picture circulated widely within child welfare circles, the news organization reported.
Although the state Department of Child Safety declined to confirm the dismissals, citing the privacy of personnel matters, the article stated, one unnamed woman acknowledged she had been fired over the shirt but declined to elaborate.
Pitzl interviewed one local woman who said the shirts were intended as an inside joke among investigators that was meant to relieve the stress of the job. And another former unit supervisor said the dismissals were long overdue.
“The T-shirts were an apparent attempt to poke fun at critics’ portrayal of DCS,” Pitzl wrote. “The agency’s detractors have long raised concerns that it removes children from families too easily, and is biased against parents, with some going so far as to accuse it of kidnapping.”
The national goal of child welfare policy is to take all reasonable measures to keep families intact if it can be done safely, and research has consistently shown that children fare better if they can maintain strong family ties. Removals and foster care placements, according to the U.S. Children’s Bureau, should be a last resort.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, who tracks child removal rates nationwide, described Arizona as well above the national average, although he said 14 states rates rank even higher. Within Arizona, Wexler said, Yavapai County’s rate is mid-range.
Pitzl told The Imprint that she broke the story after following a tip she received while on furlough from the Republic. Like virtually all news organizations, the Republic has struggled for revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic.
She said her next move is to investigate whether the T-shirt scandal indicates a lack of effective leadership at the Department of Child Safety, or just bad judgment on the part of overburdened workers.
“It’s a bad look either way,” Pitzl said.
Chuck Carroll is a journalist, writer and editor in Silicon Valley, California. He can be reached at [email protected]