An investigation in partnership with NBC News uncovers the unequal treatment of poor families and parents of color by the child welfare system.

Arizona Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs is taking the state’s child protective services agency in a radically different direction in the wake of a ProPublica-NBC News investigation into the racial disparities that have plagued the child welfare system here.

This week, Hobbs, a Democrat, announced that she has selected Matthew Stewart, a Black community advocate, as the new head of Arizona’s Department of Child Safety. Stewart previously worked at DCS as a case manager and training supervisor for a decade before quitting in 2020, later saying he was ashamed by the racial disproportionality he was seeing in his work.

Stewart, who is the son of the longtime senior pastor of Phoenix’s most prominent Black church, will be the first Black leader of the department, replacing its current director, Mike Faust. Faust had been appointed by outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican.

Arizona’s child welfare system has long disproportionately investigated Black families. According to the ProPublica-NBC News investigation, which highlighted Stewart’s role, 1 in 3 Black children in metro Phoenix faced a DCS investigation in just a recent five-year period. Faust said the department had made progress over that time, but the news organizations found that while the overall number of investigations has gone down, the racial disparity between white and Black families has only increased.

After leaving DCS, Stewart formed the community organization Our Sister Our Brother, which has fought the department for more equitable treatment of Black and also low-income parents.

Matthew Stewart Credit: Screenshot from an NBC News interview

This fall, he told ProPublica and NBC News that generational poverty and the resulting trauma within families, which in some cases can lead to parenting problems and in turn DCS investigations, have been “centuries in the making.” Are parents supposed to believe, he asked, that after the department takes custody of their children, “these things will be solved?”

“I simply don’t think DCS is the agency to do this,” he said.

Stewart will now run that very agency.

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

In a separate statement, the governor-elect said that Stewart knows how to keep children safe based on his experience working at DCS, but also how to get families help and keep them united. “He is a leader who will ensure that we can continue to transform our public systems so they are responsive to the communities that we serve,” Hobbs said.

Child welfare experts in the state and families affected by the system praised Stewart’s selection, though some wondered how much change he could bring about even in DCS’ top position.

“Matthew Stewart has been singularly focused on keeping families safely together,” said Claire Louge, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Arizona, an organization that provides services and training to prevent child maltreatment. But, she pointed out, like all DCS directors he “will face the challenge of leading an agency that is perpetually criticized — either for removing children from their families too much or too little.”

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, an advocacy group, noted that “Arizona’s incredibly tough to fix.” He pointed to a previous Democratic governor of the state, Janet Napolitano, whose reform-minded pick to lead DCS’ forerunner agency couldn’t fix the system’s racial disproportionality two decades ago. “We’ll see how much times have changed,” Wexler said.

Tyra Smith, a Phoenix-area parent who has personal experience with the child welfare system and has worked directly with Stewart as a parent advocate, said she is hopeful about Stewart’s leadership but worries that when given a new role, people can change.

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

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

He also has expressed excitement about installing a new Cultural Brokers program that will ensure that a trusted community member of the same race is present when DCS caseworkers show up at a family’s door.

But Stewart will be partially hamstrung by the fact that the Legislature, still in Republican hands, is unlikely to adjust its anti-poverty agenda to get more economic assistance and support services to struggling families in order to prevent child maltreatment cases before they happen. Currently, Arizona spends a majority of its welfare budget not on direct assistance to low-income parents but on DCS investigations of them, as ProPublica reported in 2021.

Stewart also will have to focus on more than the racial disparity issue: DCS has been plagued by other scandals in recent years, as well as child fatalities. In one example, the outgoing director, Faust, was grilled by legislators about reports of violence and drug use in the state’s foster system, leading to one teenager at a group home being shot and killed.

But for the dozens of Black families across metro Phoenix who spoke with 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 of 90 state legislators are Black. Many said in interviews that they know Stewart understands the constant, communitywide dread they feel, given that in Maricopa County, 63% of Black children will go through a DCS investigation by the time they turn 18.

After Hobbs defeated Kari Lake in the governor’s race, Stewart told ProPublica and NBC News that “I believe this will work to our benefit.” He noted that Hobbs’ background as a social worker might provide her with “a values frame and openness to change that will help guide her administration and choice of advisers.”

Stewart said he “can’t predict the future,” but “I am optimistic, and I believe it is never too soon for hope.”