AZ: Heads Roll in CPS Shake-Up

July 26th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The ongoing scandal of Arizona Child Protective services has hit a new stage with the multiple firings and resignations of Pima County caseworkers and supervisors.  Read about it here (Arizona Daily Star, 7/22/12).  But what looks like indifference and/or incompetence on the part of those being shown the door, may actually be the age-old problem of too few people and too little money.

For months now, the Arizona news media have excoriated the state’s child welfare officials for a seemingly endless string of children, known by CPS to be at risk, who were killed or injured due to the state’s failure to intervene.  Now it seems a few heads are beginning to roll, albeit mostly at the caseworker level of the CPS hierarchy.

It’s undeniable that the practices that led to the firings are egregious.  For example, over a period of two years, one caseworker, Joy Spencer-Austin, apparently simply did little or no work on some 30 cases.

She sometimes left reports blank, failing to write any case notes. She claimed to respond to abuse reports – but people would later tell CPS officials they never had any contact with her. At least once, Spencer-Austin tried to close a case without attempting to find the parents or the child.

The head of Pima County CPS, Lillian Downing has also been shown the door as have some of her subordinates.

The firings include:

• Donald Hauser, who copied and pasted the same case notes into his reports month after month while Za’ Naya starved.

• Mia Henry, who helped return little Vanessa to her drug-addicted parents now charged with murder.

• Deborah Headen, a supervisor whose team routinely failed to see kids, or at least document contacts.

Still others have resigned or been placed on leave.

Meanwhile, the agency is stonewalling efforts by the press to obtain information about the firings and other disciplinary measures.

Piecing together the firings and disciplinary actions has taken months – my first records request was in February – and the record remains incomplete. CPS has claimed administrative leave is not a disciplinary action – even though several employees placed on administrative leave have been fired.

The agency has refused to release charge letters – formal notices of a potential firing – saying they are not disciplinary actions. Case records have been blacked out. Not surprisingly, Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter would not comment.

Into the bargain, it looks like supervision of caseworkers ranged from lax to non-existent.  As but one example, it apparently took a supervisor two years to notice that Spencer-Austin had not interviewed a parent in a case or that there was no documentation of same.  It’s clear that, when a caseworker simply does nothing in some 30 cases, she’s not the only problem even though she’s the major one.  Where was the supervisor who was supposed to ask what was going on in those cases?  Apparently, that supervisor was MIA.

The same seems to have happened in a case in which Spencer-Austin attempted to have a case closed in which she’d literally done nothing.  She hadn’t even visited the family once.

Predictably, all this negligence had consequences.

I couldn’t reach Spencer-Austin. But I did reach Chuck Gillette, whose son, Anthony, was killed in a hit-and-run over Labor Day 2010 despite being in CPS care. Spencer-Austin was Anthony’s CPS worker.

While Anthony’s case is not listed in Spencer-Austin’s termination letter, her treatment of other cases left Gillette furious.

He has said he begged CPS to let him keep his son, but the agency placed the boy with his mother, who let him run with gangs.

“There were red flags all over the place,” Gillette said. “Her response was, ‘My hands are tied.’ ”

We don’t know what Spencer-Austin did or didn’t do in Anthony’s case, but can you blame Gillette for wondering?

Yes, it’s that old bugaboo of fathers – the CPS caseworker.  We know that, according to the Urban Institute’s 2006 study as well as anecdotal evidence, CPS ignores fathers as possible placement for children whose mothers are considered unfit to raise them.  In cases in which CPS knows who the father is, over half the time caseworkers make no effort to ascertain whether he’d provide a good home for the child.  In Gillette’s case, they knew who he was and that he wanted to care for his son, but, as is almost always the case, CPS ignored Dad whose ex allowed their son to hang out in the gang culture.  Sure enough, the boy ended up dead.

The marginalization of fathers by CPS looks to be the agency’s policy.  How could it be otherwise given that the same thing occurs in child welfare agencies across the country?  But what about the malfeasance described in the article?  What about the files simply tossed aside, the interviews not done, the paperwork hastily cobbled together?  What about the lack of oversight?

Well, all that looks like caseworkers with too much to do, so they cut corners and hoped for the best.  Indeed, that’s what one supervisor said in response to her firing.

Headen, the fired CPS supervisor, wrote, “In August 2011, my ongoing unit had been responsible for more children than any other unit in the region for over a year. My seven case managers were responsible for over 200 children compared to other units who had 20-50 less. My staff and I were, at one point, required to see 221 children which would be equal to twice the number of children (15 for each FTE) recommended by the Child Welfare Alliance for an ongoing case manager. My staff was doing the work of 14 case managers.”

It’s a familiar problem – too few caseworkers, too many cases.  The Arizona Legislature keeps rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but somehow the ship keeps going down.  From Maine to California, CPS caseworkers routinely are given more cases than industry standards recommend and more cases than they can handle.  That all-too-common practice sometimes results in injuries and deaths of children, and when it does, the governor appoints another commission that once again rearranges the deck chairs.  Last year, the latest child welfare feng shui resulted in turning over some of CPS’s duties to law enforcement.  My guess is that’ll work about as well as the many previous efforts to pretend that basic changes aren’t necessary.

But they are.  One is convincing CPS workers to connect fathers and children where possible.  The practice of ignoring fathers is not only disgraceful, it’s economically indefensible.  Why pay foster parents when biological parents come free of charge?

Second, CPS needs to devote more resources to parental education and assistance.  In many cases, parents just don’t know what to do for special-needs kids or don’t know what resources are available to meet their unique needs, like an after-school program when the parents are at work.  Redirecting resources away from foster care and toward family assistance could be a money-saver and in the long run better for kids and families.

Third, CPS needs to come out from behind its veil of secrecy.  Time and again we’re told by CPS that the public isn’t permitted to know what CPS did or is doing in particular cases.  That needs to change, and with it the garrison mindset among so many within CPS that holds everyone outside the agency to be the enemy that can never understand what caseworkers deal with.  Laws allowing (or requiring) that secrecy need to change to allow the press and the public to see what CPS is up to.  If they want to keep the names of children and parents out of the public eye, fine.  Records with names redacted are better than no records at all.

Finally, caseworkers need to have their caseloads kept within industry standards.  Easy as it is to blame those caseworkers and their supervisors, those standards were set for a reason – children’s safety.  If states and counties don’t budget enough funds to keep those caseloads reasonable, who’s at fault when children suffer?

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