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CPS team clearing backlog; blames cumbersome system

Clarence Carter (Photo from Arizona Department of Economic Security website)

A high turnover rate for case workers and a burdensome documentation process led to a backlog of 9,903 Child Protective Services cases that the agency is working to reduce.

Department of Economic Services Director Clarence Carter and a group of supervisors said today that a special 15-member team within the agency has cleared 7,203 of the cases since it began working on the problem in August.

The effort came after a meeting with Gov. Jan Brewer, who wanted to know the status of the CPS investigative processes and what the agency needed to improve its efficiency. It also came after a series of high-profile child deaths in which the victims had been in contact with CPS.

The backlog included 900 cases where case workers left the agency and abandoned the files. The rest were cases in which the field work had been completed but had yet to be documented in the agency’s computer system. Without documentation, the cases effectively didn’t exist.

“One of the things that will come out of this is not only getting through the backlog, but understanding where we can strengthen our practice,” Carter said.

They have since installed a less burdensome pilot documentation system.

To get through the backlog, the team of supervisors, dubbed Social Work Assessment Team, or SWAT, had to review each case and determine whether a child was in danger, the case could be closed, or the case should stay open so the family could get services.

Usually that meant follow-up work by case workers who visited the homes and “put some eyes on the kids,” said Debbie Harper, one of the SWAT members.

The supervisors attributed the high turnover of case workers to burn out. They consistently had high volumes of serious cases.

One of the things they learned from looking at the backlog was that the documentation system was too onerous and kept case workers chained to their desks entering information into the computer.

“Our work had become computer driven instead of social-work driven,” said Sandra Lescoe, who is in charge of the agency’s policy unit.

Carter said most of the tasks required in the process were scrapped because they didn’t add a “dime’s worth of value” to protecting children.

“Now we’re taking that out. We’re paying for them to do a job and they are able to do the job for which they are paid to do,” Carter said.

Carter was the co-chair of the Governor’s Child Safety Task Force, which issued nine pages of recommendations for improving CPS after a series of public meetings late last year.

Carter has said that revamping the child safety hotline and bringing in police investigators to work alongside case workers were the most critical recommendations. Other recommendations included giving CPS workers with bachelor’s and master’s degrees pay raises, creating a forum where employees could talk shop without fear of reprisal and operating under the presumption that records and reports are public record except for case plans.

The task force also recommended installing improved data services that CPS, county attorneys and the attorney general could share, as well as improving the sharing of information related to abusers who are not “in a primary relationship to the primary victim.”

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