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CPS using shortcut method to probe abuse cases that were ignored

paper-stackThe plan to plow through 6,110 abuse reports Child Protective Services ignored calls for using a shortcut investigative method that critics say may be a distinction without a difference.

The method, known as an “alternative investigation,” allows mark berger chicago CPS investigators to not make contact with the family that is the subject of the investigation. Instead, the investigator can call someone associated with the family who is required by law to report suspected child abuse, such as a doctor, a teacher, or a counselor, to check on the child’s safety.

In the 10 days CPS staff spent reviewing the 2,919 cases disregarded since Jan. 1, the alternative investigation classification was used 879 times, or 30 percent of the time.

Dana Wolfe Naimark, CEO and president of Children’s Action Alliance, said an alternative investigation is a little too close to labeling a case “NI,” or not investigated, the classification given to the 6,110 cases staff deemed weren’t worthy of an investigation since 2009.

“I don’t think they’ve made clear yet how it’s going to be different going forward than it was in the past, because it was clearly under this same title and this same rule,” Naimark said.

State administrative rules allow a CPS supervisor to conduct the alternative investigation to determine a child or other children in the home are not victims of maltreatment or at risk of imminent harm, and the allegations are unsubstantiated.

According to the most recent Child Welfare Report, CPS used an alternative investigation 1,603 times from Oct. 1, 2012, to March 31, or on 7.2 percent of the 22,161 reports taken by the Child Abuse Hotline in that period.

The supervisor has to assign the report to a field office for investigation if the supervisor determines the child is at risk for harm.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who co-chaired Gov. Jan Brewer’s Child Safety Task Force with DES Director Clarence Carter in 2011, said the difference between an alternative investigation and an NI classification is that the former is authorized by law and the other isn’t.

Montgomery said his concern lies in making sure the criteria for an alternative investigation is actually met, completed and doesn’t call for more investigation.

“If that is the scenario we have, then I don’t think we have an objective basis for criticism. But if any one of those things doesn’t line up, then that leads to the question, ‘OK, do we have another scenario now where we’ve got another CPS failure even within what is an authorized process?’” Montgomery said.

Det. Greg McKay, who heads the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, said in a Nov. 21 hearing of the CPS Oversight Committee that reports designated NI he read contained a disclaimer that said the cases weren’t a safety threat or high-risk situation because the children were not involved in prior CPS reports, were school-aged and visible in the community, and had no access to the alleged perpetrator.

McKay said none of the reports he read matched that criteria.

Carter said members of the Social Worker Assessment Team, or SWAT, a group of highly trained experienced supervisors, made the decision not to investigate reports. That task went to supervisors in the Child Abuse Hotline in August.

The practice was used briefly in 2009 and 2011 as a cost-saving measure, but then was used regularly since January 2012.

Tasya Peterson, a DES spokeswoman, said none of the workers who made the decisions not to investigate reports are part of the current review process.

The plan also calls for completing the reviews by Jan. 31, and do it with the objective to “mitigate to the degree possible the impact of this work on the caseloads of caseworkers,” although the plan doesn’t say how.

Peterson said the agency plans to call on 257 staff members who don’t carry a caseload to help with the review.

The 257 members listed in the plan include 28 investigators with the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, which investigates reports that have the potential for criminal charges.

Those investigators, former police officers, are swamped as it is, however. Part of the DES budget request to the governor was $4.6 million for more investigators because the unit can only get to 17 percent of the reports of potential criminal abuse. The unit is so busy it investigates only cases involving children 5 years old and younger.

Peterson had no further comment.

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