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Overwhelmed child abuse specialists relinquish cases to less-skilled workers


stack-files-folders-620Child welfare investigators specializing in cases of sexual and physical abuse are relinquishing thousands of cases to ordinary caseworkers, who are already overburdened, a practice that is possibly in violation of the law.

The Office of Child Welfare Investigations, considered a police agency whose investigators have police training, is leaving roughly 83 percent of cases designated as “criminal conduct” to workers trying to plow through a backlog of 12,000 cases, according to public records.

State law requires investigators in OCWI to “assess, respond to or investigate all criminal conduct allegations.” The criminal conduct classification includes sex crimes, child abuse and domestic violence.

Jennifer Bowser-Richards, a spokeswoman for the Department of Child Safety and Family Services, said in a written statement that OCWI’s 22 investigators and six managers respond within their ability “based upon available resources.”

“However, the agency bears responsibility for all investigations and criminal conduct investigations are conducted in consultation with OCWI,” Bowser wrote.

OCWI leaders knew from the beginning of its existence in fiscal-year 2013 it couldn’t keep up with the deluge of criminal conduct calls, so it crafted a policy in which investigators respond only to cases involving children younger than 5 and child fatalities in Maricopa and Pima counties, according to the agency’s head, Greg McKay.

The small agency was the chief recommendation of the 2011 Governor’s Child Safety Task Force that looked into improving the child welfare system. OCWI uncovered the practice of a handful of CPS workers who illegally designated calls into the hotline as “NI,” or not investigated, and set them aside without anyone checking on the welfare of the children involved.

In all, 6,596 calls were classified NI over five years, prompting Gov. Jan Brewer to abolish Child Protective Services and create the Department of Child Safety and Family Services, which will report directly to the governor. The Legislature is expected to go into special session in the next few weeks to pass bills pertaining to the new parent agency and OCWI, which is currently under the umbrella of the Department of Economic Security.

OCWI from the beginning felt the stress of the deluge of cases into the child-welfare system. It reported in September that it could only respond to 17 percent of 11,000 criminal conduct calls that came into the hotline, leaving the remaining 83 percent to social workers.

Bowser said there is no up-to-date information on what percentage of criminal conduct calls OCWI responds to.

A Department of Public Safety administrative investigation on the NI practice found that it began in response to overwhelming caseloads that were growing significantly.

Dana Naimark, executive director of Children’s Action Alliance, said OCWI is facing the same issue as regular child welfare workers in that their capacity is far overmatched by the workload.

The difference, however, is that NI cases were simply set aside while the cases OCWI can’t get to are handed off to caseworkers.

The Arizona Legislature in the recently completed 2014 session gave the office an additional $1.8 million for fiscal-year 2015 to hire 20 more fulltime positions, even though Brewer asked for $8.6 million for 93 new fulltime workers.

Rep. Kate Brophy-McGee, R-Phoenix, who is part of a work group putting together legislation to create the agency to succeed CPS, said she expects another appropriation request closer to what the governor wants in the special session, which Brewer is expected to call in late May.

“The reason I say that is as much as we work on child welfare with the idea of reunifying families and keeping families together, we also must work on child welfare first and foremost to ensure child safety,” McGee said. “When you have criminal conduct you have a situation where a child is by no means safe.”

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