Child Protective Services Hearing Raises Question Of What Went Wrong

November 22, 2013

Arizona’s Child Protective Services announced that 6,000 allegations of child abuse over the last three years have been ignored. Nearly half of the calls came in since January.

During a sometimes-emotional hearing Thursday afternoon of the committee that oversees CPS, child welfare officials discussed what went wrong and what they are doing to make sure it does not happen again. A team of highly experienced investigators was apparently going through and marking complaints as “NI” or “not investigated.” Those reports of abuse never made it to a case worker.

According to CPS, about half of the ignored calls have since been reviewed. Of those, 1,700 merit follow up. Twenty-three cases involve allegations of criminal abuse. Ten were so serious, workers had to perform an immediate welfare check on the children in question.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery was part of a recent task force charged with reforming the state’s child safety program. During the hearing, he said the task force agreed criminal complaints should have been classified as "P1," the highest priority for CPS.

“I thought there was an agreement and understanding that if there was any sort of a criminal conduct allegation, it wouldn’t be a 'P3' or a 'P4,' it had to be a P1," said Montgomery during the hearing.

Clarence Carter directs the Department of Economic Security, the state agency that oversees Child Protective Services. He was also on the task force with Montgomery.

“There was never any understanding that criminal conducts were only P1s. Criminal conduct allegations," Carter said.

“We talked specifically about that in that task force and afterwards that if it was a criminal conduct allegation, it needed to be a P1, because it didn’t matter how long [ago] it had occurred, you had to get eyes out on it in order to be able to make the case so it could be submitted and prosecuted," Montgomery responded.

Carter said CPS has put new procedures in place to make sure no reports of abuse are ignored and that the department is regularly auditing those calls to make sure they are handled properly, and he pointed out that the 6,000 calls in question represent 2.6 percent of the entire child welfare case load during the time period in question. But, that did not make oversight committee member Cherie Klavitter feel any better.

“I spent a third of my life in foster care. I was a foster mother. I have six children that I adopted from foster care," said Klavitter. "I don’t like to hear demeaning numbers like 2.6 percent which make it seem like a small problem that has occurred. What I want to know is how many children, and I’m not talking about cases, how many children are we talking about that have fallen through the cracks in Arizona?”

Carter said he will not know the exact number of children affected until a full review is finished.

The ignored calls were uncovered by the relatively new Office of Child Welfare Investigations. That unit was one of the recommendations of the task force Montgomery and Carter co-chaired and has reviewed some 200 of the cases that were pushed aside.

Sen. Nancy Barto asked OCWI chief Greg McKay about what they found.

“From what I hear you say, out of 150 or 200, every single one of them demanded an investigation, they rose to the level of an investigation yet were put in the NI category, is that correct?” Barto asked.

Senator, in my opinion, yes. Every one required an investigation," McKay responded.

In a statement, Gov. Jan Brewer said she does not want to see the lights off at CPS until the mess is sorted out.

Dana Naimark will be following that process. She is the president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance. She said she felt devastated but not shocked by the news of the uninvestigated complaints, saying there is a lot of evidence that the system is overwhelmed.