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From X-rays to highways, backlogs affect several state agencies


The term “backlog” has become synonymous with the Department of Child Safety, but agencies throughout the state are facing their own workload difficulties and some historically fall behind in their work.

Inspections for nearly half the X-ray facilities in the state are overdue. Repairs on the state’s highways go undone, causing millions of dollars in damaged vehicles a year. Cases involving teacher misconduct and elderly abuse go untouched.

And one of the more recent backlogs to gain attention is rape kit testing, which Gov. Doug Ducey has made a priority of making current.

Depending on the agency, a backlog can grab the attention of the public and policymakers, and lead to a scramble in search of causes and solutions.

Michael Hunter, vice president of state and fiscal affairs for the Goldwater Institute, said the high incidence of agency backlogs raises the question of whether government is being asked to do too much.

Hunter, a former chief lobbyist for former Gov. Jan Brewer, said agencies can go to too many lengths in their efforts to be accountable.

“Sometimes it’s just a bureaucrat trying to do their job, trying to follow the law and they end up applying every single tool when they may not need every single tool,” Hunter said.

Melanie Chesney, deputy auditor general, whose office is tasked with making sure state and local agencies are wisely spending their money and using their resources, said there are myriad reasons they fall behind in their work.

Sometimes it’s inefficient processes in place or a lack of policies and procedures to guide those processes. Other times it’s a lack of training or a lack of adequate training, and there are times when managers aren’t monitoring the work.

Chesney said sometimes the performance measures are lacking or the right or meaningful measures aren’t in place.

“And then certainly, in some instances, there is a lack of resources or the lack of appropriate resources to get the job done,” Chesney said.

The auditor general offers recommendations for improvement, but some agencies don’t seem to catch on.

Auditors found in September that the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency, the agency responsible for inspecting X-ray machines, was overdue on inspections of nearly half the state’s X-ray facilities, a problem the auditor general said puts the public at risk.

“This backlog was noted in two previous audits dating back 30 years,” the audit noted.

Also in September, the auditor stated in its report on the Arizona Department of Transportation that is was falling behind on road maintenance projects because of competing construction costs.

The consequence is an estimated $1.5 billion in extra car repairs Arizona residents pay each year, the report stated.

Untested rape kits

Ducey estimates the backlog of untested rape kits to be at 2,300 in Maricopa County alone, and the governor has put together a task force charged with coming up with ways to make sure every rape kit is tested.

Rape kits contain biological evidence from alleged sexual assaults.

Bill Richardson, a former sex crimes detective and a newspaper columnist who comments on law enforcement issues, said police agencies over the years adopted the practice of not testing the kits in cases in which the suspect is known.

“Just because a woman might know who her attacker was, that doesn’t mean that same person hasn’t done a series of sexual assaults where the kits have been tested,” Richardson said. “There may be evidence in this case, there may evidence in another case and you add it up and you’ve got one prosecutable case.”

Cassia Spohn, director of the School of Criminology and Justice at Arizona State University and an expert on sexual assault cases, said her research has found that the far greater percentage of sexual assaults involved an acquaintance or intimate partner of the victim.

Besides the law enforcement benefit of testing every kit, it is also important to victims, Spohn said.

“They put themselves through what can be a traumatic, embarrassing forensic medical examination with the expectation that the evidence that is collected will be tested,” Spohn said.

When that doesn’t happen, it reduces the sense of procedural fairness and justice, reduces confidence in the criminal justice system and makes it more difficult to identify rapists who haven’t been caught, Spohn said.

Massive workloads

The granddaddy of all backlogs in Arizona is the child abuse and neglect cases, which stands at roughly 13,000, and haven’t had any work done on them in the past two months.

The public became aware of it when it was discovered in late 2013 that some caseworkers decided not to investigate about 6,500 reports into the child abuse hotline as a way to lessen the workload.

The backlog has continued to be tough to handle despite millions of dollars appropriated for the problem and a revamping of the child welfare system, and now the Department of Child Safety is asking lawmakers to give the agency flexibility over which cases to investigate.

Agency officials tout that the inactive case backlog has declined for the past several months, although not yet below the figure in 2014.

Some blame high turnover and caseworkers inundated with reports of abuse and neglect for creating an environment in which the backlog cannot be overcome.

DCS Director Greg McKay said the agency receives roughly 135,000 calls to its hotline each month, and roughly 51,000 meet current criteria that require an investigation.

“Let’s face it. There’s limits to where our government agency can be, 24/7, 365,” McKay said.

There has been a less-noticed, yet equally troubling backlog at the other end of the age spectrum.

In fiscal-year 2011, caseworkers with Adult Protective Services, a division of Department of Economic Security, carried an average caseload of 40, well within the national standard, officials with the agency said.

That average ballooned to 163 by fiscal year 2015. The increased workload came from an explosion of new cases that began in fiscal year 2012. The agency saw a 28 percent increase that year and a 27 percent increase the next. There was a 23 percent increase in cases the next two years combined.

Lynn Larson, DES assistant director for the Division of Aging and Adult Services, and Rhonda Coates, DES deputy assistant director, said they can only speculate why there was sudden increase in cases and they didn’t see it coming, but it hit the workers hard, pushing the turnover rate up to about 60 percent. It is now down to 17 percent.

“The turnover was contributing to the high caseloads,” Larson said.

The agency has been able to knock down the average caseload to 63.

Chesney said the auditor general always recommends agencies look inward for solutions before running to the Legislature for more resources and money.

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