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    "Parents want to parent": How children in DCS custody are reunited with their families

    By Jessica Boehm,


    More than 3,000 Arizona children left Department of Child Safety (DCS) custody and returned to their families last year.

    Why it matters: Safe family reunification is the ultimate goal for children in state custody, according to Maricopa County Juvenile Court presiding judge Lori Bustamante.

    • "Typically, parents want to parent their children and children want to be with their parents. That bond is so intense and important and the hope is to keep that family together," she tells Axios.

    Driving the news: June is Family Reunification Month , a chance for local agencies to celebrate the parents who regained custody of their children and dispel the stereotypes the parents face.

    Between the lines: Bustamante says there's a negative stigma around parents who children are removed from the home.

    • She encourages the community to look at separation as giving parents the time they need to correct behaviors or issues that led to DCS' involvement.

    How it works: Substance abuse is the most common cause of child removal from their parents' care, Bustamante says.

    • DCS will first attempt to place a child with another family member.
    • If that's not an option, the child could end up in foster care or, as a last resort, a group home, Bustamante says.

    By the numbers: Reunification is the most common reason children leave DCS custody, with about 47% of DCS-exiting children returning to their families last year, per agency data.

    • The next most common outcome last year is adoption, which accounted for 28% of children.

    Zoom in: Phoenix mom Felicia Galaz's daughter was removed from her care about 14 years ago.

    • Galaz had grown up in the foster care system, had been addicted to drugs since she was young and used substances during most of her pregnancy, she told us.
    • After her daughter was born, she stayed clean for about six months before relapsing.

    Every day of the two-plus years apart from her daughter was a fight, Galaz told us.

    • She checked herself into a 12-month rehab facility, attended hours of therapy and learned how to be the parent she wanted to be, she said.
    • She regained custody a month shy of her daughter's 3rd birthday.

    Flash forward: Galaz now lives in Tucson with her husband of nine years and has six children.

    • The daughter is almost 14 and graduated from eighth grade last month.

    What they're saying: "As soon as she started to walk the stage, tears started rolling down my face because I'm so glad I get to see her grow into such a beautiful young lady and be a part of her life," Galaz said.

    What we're watching: Bustamante tells us she's seeing a decline in custody cases that come before her courts, in part because of new prevention resources.

    • In 2021, DCS revamped its in-home monitoring and parenting skills programs and offered improved mental health and substance abuse services for parents.
    • DCS reduced the number of children in out-of-home care to the lowest level in 15 years in 2023, per the agency.
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