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Officials downplay computer error that hid records

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State and county officials generally downplayed the significance of a computer glitch at Arizona’s child-welfare agency that kept some public records hidden from parents and their lawyers for more than 15 years.

Eight requests for information about Child Protective Services cases were made Monday as more than 30,000 people were notified that they may not have received all the documents to which they were entitled under state law, The Arizona Republic reported.

The withheld information could include details of child abuse hotline reports, services provided to the family, and case notes from CPS workers and supervisors.

The missing records could prompt attorneys to reopen child-dependency, civil or criminal cases if it can be shown that the information would have changed the outcome.

The problem was discovered in June during an annual review of the agency’s public-disclosure practices. An employee noticed that different sets of records were released to different parties in the same case.

Further review found the database system that tracks CPS cases had been programmed to print about one-third of the information considered public record under state and federal law. The programming error had been in place since the database was created in 1996.

The Department of Economic Security, which oversees CPS, alerted the public to the error on Friday.

Several paralegals and other staff members were brought in to work on processing records requests from parents, attorneys, law enforcement and the media.

Attorneys who represent parents and children in CPS cases say withholding these public records could prove costly for the state if it turns out children were removed from or returned to parents based on incomplete or inaccurate information. The agency doesn’t have any reason to believe the outcomes of the cases would have been any different, DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said.

DES officials say their review determined that most of the undisclosed information was redundant and already contained on the pages that were released.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which represents CPS in dependency cases, said missing documents likely would have had little impact on cases because attorneys for the parents receive the same information as prosecutors.

“We have disclosure obligations in our cases, and we disclose the information that we’re going to rely upon to prove our case,” said Nicole Davis, chief counsel for the Child and Family Protection Division. “We don’t have any reason to believe that the outcome of any of the cases that we’ve handled would’ve been different.”

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said she’s hopeful that none of the criminal prosecutions in her county were compromised by the state’s failure to disclose information. Polk said child-abuse and neglect cases are handled jointly with law enforcement, prosecutors and CPS.

“Because of the joint investigative nature of what we do, we’re working as a team to gather that information,” Polk said.

Democratic state Sen. Linda Lopez of Tucson, a former foster parent, said lawmakers overlooked CPS last session when they approved funding to upgrade other state computer systems, despite testimony about the agency’s antiquated system.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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