Money was beginning to flow again to Child Protective Services after the economic downturn of the last decade.
Lawmakers opened up the purse, giving the historically troubled agency $73 million increases in the 2012 and 2013 sessions combined. Department of Economic Services Director Clarence Carter was implementing a new level of transparency for CPS by providing updates on efforts to cut into a backlog of nearly 10,000 cases that had gone months without any attention because of an exodus of workers and budget cuts.
Carter also asked for an additional $212 million in new dollars for fiscal year 2015 to pay for more caseworkers and
$4.6 million to expand the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, a group of investigators who look into potential criminal cases of child abuse.
A new day seemed to be in store for the agency, which for decades adhered to a pattern of secrecy and silence followed by crisis and cries for reform.
The public disclosure on Nov. 21 that more than 6,000 calls into the Child Abuse Hotline were set aside without an investigation evaporated any illusion that CPS was changing for the better. The disclosure launched calls for Carter’s termination, a special team appointed by the governor to “put eyes” on the children, a Department of Public Safety investigation, and a cascade of potential fixes.
At last count, 6,554 reports were not investigated since 2009.
The CPS Oversight Committee met just a few hours after the news broke. One of its members, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, took the first shots at Carter, accused him of lying about agreements made in 2011 over prioritizing cases. Both men co-chaired the 2011 Child Safety Task Force, a panel appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer to come up with recommendations to make children safer.
Brewer didn’t hold back either, saying the situation was unconscionable and heartbreaking and the lights at CPS wouldn’t go out until every child was accounted for.
Five CPS supervisors instrumental in initiating the practice of not investigating the calls were placed on administrative leave. Carter asked the Department of Public Safety to conduct an administrative investigation to determine how the unwritten, unauthorized policy of setting aside calls without investigation came to be.
By Dec. 2, CPS had plowed through every call and determined about 54 percent of them required a field investigation, or a caseworker to visit to the child.
That same day, Brewer announced the appointment of the Child Advocate Response Examination, or CARE, a group led by Department of Juvenile Corrections Director Charles Flanagan and charged with again assessing the uninvestigated reports.
Brewer caused a stir by reaffirming her support for Carter. She had walked out of the press conference announcing the formation of CARE ignoring questions on Carter, but she dramatically returned.
“We need a complete, full investigation and we need to know where all the bodies are buried, if you will, no pun intended,” Brewer said. “We’re not going to start attacking people until we know that we’ve got a basis to do that.”
On Dec. 3, Flanagan said several CPS employees who were involved in designating calls as “NI,” or not investigated, were also on the work group that reassessed the calls.
Flanagan wouldn’t allow them to be part of the CARE team assessment. He also refused to use a shortcut method known as an “alternative investigation,” or AI, a legal process in which CPS is allowed to close a case without seeing the child.
Flanagan said that because there was controversy surrounding the AI process, it wouldn’t serve anyone well to use it. He interpreted Brewer’s orders to mean every child would get a full investigation.
The revelation also came that CPS has been disclosing the practice of not investigating reports since 2009 in its twice yearly data reports that by law are sent to legislative leaders, legislative committee leaders and the governor.
A Brewer spokesman and Carter said the language in the reports was too ambiguous for a reasonable person to understand, but while that could be true for the most recent reports, several of them were written in clear, simple terms explaining certain numbers of reports “were not investigated.”
When the gavel raps the start of the next legislative session, there will likely be plenty of discussion about CPS, and the most heard suggestions include giving CPS more money and peeling it away from DES to be a stand-alone agency.
Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, a Phoenix Republican who is on the CPS Oversight Committee and CARE team, said splitting CPS from its umbrella agency would make it more transparent and lighten the load for DES, which oversees many programs.
Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, a Phoenix Democrat who sits with Brophy McGee on both panels, will be looking for more funding to pay for more caseworkers and preventive programs.
The leaders in both chambers aren’t receptive to giving the agency more money. President Andy Biggs, a Gilbert Republican, and Andy Tobin, a Paulden Republican, both said the Legislature has given CPS plenty of money recently and they think the problems are systemic.
“It isn’t money that caused this problem, and that’s why I’m saying we need to find out what caused the problem,” said Biggs. “If you have a training problem or you have any other problem going on right now, why do you think throwing money right into this agency is necessarily the correct response?”