Heads Roll in Arizona Child Protective Services Shakeup

May 12, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The fallout from the scandal that broke last year over Arizona’s Child Protective Services is still happening and to no one’s great surprise, it’s hitting the lowest levels of the agency hardest. Read about it here (Arizona Daily Sun, 5/8/14).

If you recall, for years Arizona’s CPS has been one of the worst in the nation for letting cases slide through the cracks. Children suffer terrible injuries and sometimes die at the hands of parents, caregivers, foster parents and time and again it turned out Arizona CPS knew the kids were in danger but failed to intervene. Indeed, I did a piece just two years ago on Woody Drummond, a Colorado father whose ex moved to Arizona with their son. The boy’s mother was clearly unfit to care for him, a fact both Drummond and his ex reported to CPS numerous times and always with the message that he’d take care of the child if he were ever taken from the mother. He never was. She killed him before CPS did anything and Drummond wasn’t even considered as a possible placement for the boy. Here’s my piece on that case (NPO, 6/23/11).

Each time such a thing occurred, newspapers, most notably the Arizona Republic ran scathing articles and each time CPS stonewalled the news media, shielding the public from information about what its public servants were up to.

But finally, things got so bad that Governor Jan Brewer appointed a commission to look into the goings on behind closed doors and lo and behold, things were far worse than anyone imagined. Not only was CPS letting kids slip through the cracks, caseworkers were intentionally putting them there. Perhaps the most horrific finding was that there were some 6,500 cases over a three-year period that had been reported to CPS and simply ignored. They even had a shorthand term for the cases – “NI” – meaning “Not Investigated.”

Now, supposedly most of those were less worrisome cases. In theory, no serious case got labeled “NI,” but how would anyone know? After all, the whole point of investigating complaints is to find out how serious they are, whether they need action and if so, what kind. If caseworkers could tell all that from the complainant’s telephone call or email, they’d be soothsayers.

I hate to call the discovery of 6,500 ignored cases the “straw” that broke the camel’s back. They were more like a giant redwood, but whatever the name, the result was a total revamping of CPS by Brewer. And what’s going on now is part of that process. Five upper-level managers were fired and their supervisor was as well. All were involved in the triage of the complaints that resulted in so many being assigned to the NI category.

And they’re not happy about it. That’s partly because the head of CPS, Clarence Carter is still on the job, albeit with an agency that now has no authority over child protective issues. In the recent past, there’ve been statements issued by numerous managers and former managers to the effect that Carter knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it. Carter claims ignorance. Clearly, when he’s in charge, the buck stops elsewhere, in this case, with managers three levels of bureaucracy down from him. Brewer, who’s a friend of Carter, pronounced herself fine with that.

But Brewer told Capitol Media Services earlier this week she’s done looking at Carter’s culpability and not interested in discussing whether he should be fired.

“I will tell you that I’m not going to go backwards,” she said. “I’m moving forward.”

Harry Truman would be so impressed.

What comes clear from all the finger pointing, claim and counterclaim, is that what the five women were doing was not only known to all, but was in fact agency policy.

“I believe that we took on the task we were directed to do,” said Parker. “And we did it to the best of our ability based on the criteria we were asked to follow and the direction we were asked to go.”

And Deborah Harper said reports of what they were doing went out regularly to their supervisors.

In other words, they were told to do what they did and they did it to the best of their ability and kept their superiors informed. Does anyone realistically dispute that? No one I’ve heard. So if that’s the case, how is it that these five managers and their supervisor take the fall and not Carter? It looks like he’s got Brewer’s protection and that’s that. Too bad, ladies. Wrong place, wrong time.

Let’s not forget that what they were doing – what they were ordered to do and everyone in the place knew they were doing – was a violation of the law that requires every complaint of child abuse or neglect to be investigated. They were tasked by their superiors with violating that law, but they’re the only ones to end up holding the bag.

So much for Clarence Carter and Child Protective Services, but there of course is a larger picture. When the camera pulls back to bring into focus everyone who’s at fault in this sorry affair, all of a sudden it includes the Arizona Legislature. They’re the ones who tried to do children’s protection on the cheap in the first place. They’re the ones who for years heard the complaints that registered with numbing frequency in the state’s newspapers and on radio and television.

Those complaints were the same in Arizona as they are in so many other states like California, Texas and New Mexico – too little money, too few resources, too little training, unmanageable caseloads, high turnover of caseworkers and its inevitable result, too little experience on the part of those who remained. Face it, neither Clarence Carter nor any of his subordinates figured that ignoring complaints of abuse and neglect was the preferred way of doing business at CPS. The simple fact is that the order to not investigate cases came for a reason – lack of resources. They didn’t have enough caseworkers to look into all the complaints, so they tossed thousands of files at the few experienced people they had and hoped for the best.

The best of course is not what they got, but what was the alternative? When a state pays low wages to employees who do one of the hardest and most important jobs anywhere, it turns out not many people want to do that job. That means they got inadequate employees with inadequate training and experience and then overburdened them with twice – in some cases more than twice – the number of cases recommended by industry standards.

And now people pretend to be shocked that a lot of those cases didn’t get investigated – that it was in fact agency policy to not investigate them. Again, what was the alternative?

I don’t know if Clarence Carter should be fired or not. He certainly should be awarded the medal for cowardice under fire, but I do know who should be let go – the state legislature. They’re the ones who figured that, if they just cut budgets radically enough, somehow people would make do and everything would be OK. Many dead children later, their assumptions turn out to be faulty. Who could possibly have known?

But don’t expect to see any state officeholder falling on his/her sword any time soon. None of them would dream of admitting that they too played a part in the endangerment of children. But there’s one silver lining; Governor Brewer won’t fire Clarence Carter, but whether legislators get fired or not isn’t up to her. It’s up to the voters.


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