Thousands of uninvestigated CPS cases traced to brief cost-saving measure in 2009

Gary Grado//November 21, 2013

Thousands of uninvestigated CPS cases traced to brief cost-saving measure in 2009

Gary Grado//November 21, 2013

cps child protective servicesA brief Child Protective Services cost-saving measure that was supposed to end after five days in December 2009 has led to the failure to investigate thousands of cases of alleged child abuse, an official testified today.

The state agency recently discovered roughly 6,000 cases of child abuse that haven’t been investigated.

Department of Economic Services Director Clarence Carter said the cases were pulled by special assessment teams from the Child Protective Services database before they were assigned to investigators.

Carter said the numbers of uninvestigated cases grew dramatically in the last few months after the job of taking a second look at cases for the purpose of prioritizing them shifted from “more experienced, higher-level functioning individuals” to a less experienced group of workers.

Rather than being delayed due to a massive caseload, they were simply closed out by the thousands with the classification of “not investigated.”

Det. Greg McKay, who heads up the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, said in a hearing of the Child Protective Services Oversight Committee that he has traced the policy of not investigating cases to a five-day period in November and December 2009. It was supposed to be a temporary cost-saving measure to Dec. 2, 2009, but has continued and increased over the years.

Carter said Gov. Jan Brewer, who has made child safety one of her priorities, hit the roof when he told her about the problem. Her response was a combination of anger and sadness and included unprintable words, Carter said.

“The idea that there are 6,000 cases that we don’t know whether or not children are safe, that is cause for grave alarm,” he said.

He said the 6,000 cases date back to 2009.  Since Jan. 1 there have been 2,981 cases that have gone uninvestigated.

Brewer issued a statement saying “the most urgent priority is to ensure that each one of the children involved in these cases is safe.’’

“Every case must be investigated – no exceptions, no excuses. It is not only the right thing, but it is the law,’’ she asserted.  ““I do not want to see the lights off at CPS until this is done.’’

“As governor and as a mother, safeguarding Arizona’s children has been a top priority of mine. That’s why it is not only heartbreaking, but unconscionable to find out that thousands of cases within CPS have gone uninvestigated, potentially involving vulnerable, abused and neglected Arizona children. This is absolutely unacceptable,’’ she wrote.

She said she has instructed Carter “to immediately investigate each and every case, and to request that the Department of Public Safety conduct an independent, thorough administrative review of these cases and the process that led to this situation.

“DPS is charged with determining precisely how and why this inexcusable failure occurred. There must be accountability in this matter and I will insist on further reforms to make sure that it cannot happen again.”

McKay’s unit, which was created in 2012 under DES and is separate from CPS, discovered the problem. The Office of Child Welfare Investigations usually looks into alleged crimes against children.

McKay said he has yet to discover any fatalities in the small sample of cases he has reviewed.  .

“There have been subsequent reports involving alleged abuse and physical injury after a prior (uninvestigated case),” McKay said. “Those are being investigated currently.”

Carter said 125 investigations arose after previous reports were classified as not investigated.

He said he has put a stop to the practice of classifying cases as not investigated and has added another level of quality control and strengthened the criteria in assessing reports. He said the agency will conduct an internal review to figure out what went wrong.  He has asked the Department of Public Safety to do a review of the triage process.

The process begins with the CPS Child Abuse Hotline, where hotline workers make an initial assessment based on certain criteria.

If the hotline worker determines a report is worthy of an investigation, the report is sent to a field office for a case worker to consider or the Office of Child Welfare Investigations if it rises to the level of a crime. A supervisor in the field then assigns the case.

Carter said the uninvestigated cases were being removed from the database before supervisors could assign them.

He said a Social Worker Assessment Team, or SWAT, would determine whether to remove the case before assignment.

He said since August the job has been moved to a special team of assessors in the Child Abuse Hotline.

Carter said he is not going to fire anyone until a full review is completed.

McKay said two cases in particular brought the problem to his attention.

One involved a teenager who was molesting a younger sibling. McKay said a police detective simply asked about the status of the CPS case, and when he checked he saw it had been classified as “not investigated.” McKay said the victim hadn’t been assessed for safety for nine months.

The second case involved allegations of a father burning his son with an iron. McKay said too little was known about the case to classify it as a crime, but it required investigation, so he asked the Hotline not to classify it as a crime.

“What the Hotline specialist said to us, was, ‘Well, if we don’t put a criminal conduct on it, it’s just going to get an NI (not investigated),’” McKay said.

McKay, who is a Phoenix homicide detective on loan to CPS, said that was the second time he had heard of the classification, so he looked to see how many cases had it and found 5,000 in the last 20 months.

McKay brought the problem to Carter’s attention a week ago.

“These are not reports that sat on someone’s desk too burdened to do the work,” McKay said. “We all know there is only so much capacity in one human being to handle voluminous case loads sitting on their desk. These reports never made it there.”

Carter said all 6,000 cases are going to be reviewed even though case workers are working at about 77 percent above their case load capacity.

“We simply have a duty to get it done,” he said.

Carter reported in September that the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, which only does criminal investigations, can only get to about 17 percent of its cases. Carter is asking for an additional $4.6 million to expand the office by 50 investigators, who are former police officers with social worker training.

The investigative unit was created with 2012 legislation.  Its job is to investigate cases involving child abuse and child sex crimes. It was the chief recommendation from the 2011 Governor’s Child Safety Task Force, spawned by a series of high-profile child deaths in which the victims had been in the child-welfare system.

Carter also asked for an additional $49 million for 235 more case workers because reports to the hotline have grown by 27 percent since 2011 and continues to grow at a clip of 7 to 8 percent a year.