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Backlogs growing again at child safety agency, director says

Greg McKay

Greg McKay

The head of the state’s child welfare agency wants to scrap laws and rules that require caseworkers to do a full investigation of every complaint of child neglect.

And a key state lawmaker wants mandatory drug testing for parents before they can be reunited with their children.

Greg McKay told a legislative oversight committee Thursday that the Department of Child Safety currently has 14,631 cases marked “inactive.” That means no one has looked at the file for at least 60 days.

What makes that particularly notable, McKay said, is that’s pretty close to what it was a year ago when the Legislature created the agency by pulling it out of the Department of Economic Security. That move followed legislative concern that cases were falling through the cracks — and that, by extension, some children were put in danger.

So, basically, the number of Hotline reports that we’re receiving every month is greater than the number of reports existing staff can close,” McKay said. “Hence, things are backlogging.”

All that, he said, “tells us that we need to come upon a different approach.”

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, who co-chairs the panel, pointed out current law requires every case be investigated. She said a better approach might be allowing intake workers to screen out some calls.

“At some point there would need to be some statutory change to allow that to happen,” she said.

Brophy McGee said that doesn’t necessarily mean no one follows up. But she said an alternative could include a public-private partnership where DCS contracts with outsiders to do that.

That, she said, would free up caseworkers to handle what’s left.  Brophy McGee conceded, though, there is a risk of sorts.

“We are going to lose some children,” she said. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”

McKay said there is precedent for altering the law, citing measures in other states where the child welfare agency gets to “pull the lever at the front end.”

“What that means is we’re going to decide to screen out this many reports so we don’t go out on them anymore,” he explained. But McKay said that’s not a decision he’s going to make on his own.

A less drastic option, he said, would be to alter agency rules to allow some cases to be closed with minimal work.

He said there are complaints where a caseworker knows a complaint could be closed with perhaps just an hour of work.

“But by the current rule in the books, we have to do A to Z, in every case, with no discretion,” he continued. “What that causes is each investigation takes an immense amount of time — which causes people not to be able to get out on the ones we know we need to get out on.”

McKay, however, said that’s not the case with the death of Alexandra Velazco, who would have turned 4 this weekend. She weighed just 15 pounds when taken to a hospital where she died.

He said DCS removed an infant from the home in June. But a caseworker who went back more recently to inquire about Alexandra and her 6-year-old brother was told they were out of the country.

McKay said the investigator had no reason to suspect the parents were lying. But he also said the staffer, with other cases, did not have the time to put the home under surveillance.

The parents have since been arrested.

Brophy McGee, however, said the case points up another flaw in the law beyond overworked caseworkers.

She said the report from DCS shows caseworkers removed Alexandra and her brother from the home in 2011 after the girl and her mother tested positive for amphetamines at her birth. But the family was reunited after the parents successfully completed a substance abuse program.

Brophy McGee said that shows the problem goes beyond DCS staffing. She wants to empower the agency to require drug tests from parents whose children have been removed from the home.

“We test employees, we test truck drivers,” she said. There also have been votes to require random drug tests of welfare recipients.

“We require professional athletes to pee in a cup before they play a game,” Brophy McGee continued. “Why do we not require this of drug-addicted parents who want to be parents again?”

She also wants background checks of all adults living in a home before children are returned.

On the issue of screening out certain complaints, Brophy McGee said there would have to be some standards to determine which cases to review and which can be put aside. Ideally, she said, these would be based on some models of where there is the highest risk.

But Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, said there’s a human factor at work in all these cases, something that occurs when caseworkers are trying to decide whether to leave children in a home or remove them. He said that’s the fear of making the wrong decision and ending up in the newspaper if a child is injured or dies.

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