More Trouble for Arizona Child Protective Services: 6,000 Cases Ignored

December 5, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

In September of 2012, I wrote this about the sorry state of Child Protective Services in Arizona. Back then there was statewide alarm about the deterioration of the state agency charged with protecting children at risk of abuse or neglect. At the time, CPS was hemorrhaging caseworkers. Due to the usual overwork and low pay, caseworkers were quitting faster than CPS could hire them. The result was an agency that had about 500 fewer caseworkers than it should have according to its own standards.

But those standards were what turned away all those caseworkers in the first place. Before the mass exodus began, Arizona CPS agents juggled caseloads over 50% larger than industry standards recommended. The exodus of course made things worse. Fewer workers meant even higher caseloads, more people walking off the job and still higher caseloads for those who remained.

That meant that an agency that’s never been known for its prompt, efficient or competent handling of allegations of abuse or neglect became something of a national scandal. Into the bargain, one of the less well-known consequences of too few caseworkers was a spike in the number of children in foster care. Essentially, once a caseworker had consigned a child to foster care, it was easier to concentrate on the mountain of new allegations than to monitor that child’s well-being.

Those allegations were pouring in at a rate of over 100 per day, or over 37,000 per year.

So, faced with an emergency, Governor Jan Brewer announced the hiring of 215 new caseworkers, which sounded impressive until it was revealed that, in the time it took to hire the new ones, 167 existing caseworkers had quit. The net of 48 new caseworkers was obviously far from adequate to handle the cases even Arizona CPS admitted required almost 500 to handle.

As I pointed out at the time, all this was public policy. Abused and neglected children ignored, children shoved into foster care because caseworkers didn’t have the time or training to figure out if their parents were qualified to keep them, caseworkers walking off the job due to overwork, low pay and high stress all constituted governmental policy. A pinchpenny legislature decided that CPS could do more with less money and, to no one’s surprise, it couldn’t. Why a college graduate would work for $30,000 a year at one of the most difficult and stressful jobs in the world has always been a mystery, but why a legislature thought that it could increase the work loads of caseworkers who already had far too much to do simply defies description.

That was then; this is now. And now, things have gone from bad to worse.

The latest scandal is the fact that, over the last four years, some 6,000 allegations of abuse or neglect have simply been ignored by CPS. Here’s one article (Verde Independent, 11/29/13). Apparently they weren’t even assigned to caseworkers. And worse still, it was no accident; over the years it had become CPS policy to do nothing at all about some 8.5% of its cases.

On Thursday [Department of Economic Security Director Clarence] Carter disclosed that an independent investigative arm within CPS had found there had been 6,000 complaints of child abuse that had been marked "NI’ — as in not for investigation. The practice, which began slowly in 2009, accelerated to the point of becoming a de facto policy where about one complaint out of every 12 made this year had been shunted off into the NI category.

In other words, there’s been a four-year de facto policy of ignoring large numbers of complaints of child abuse and/or neglect. That may constitute criminal wrongdoing on someone’s part because state law mandates the investigation of every such allegation.

But for now, the only inquiry into the matter is administrative.

The state’s top police agency is ready to investigate how 6,000 reports of child abuse over four years fell through the cracks.

Bart Graves, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said Monday that four or five investigators are being assigned to a full-time inquiry of Child Protective Services. He said the main focus of the probe, ordered by Gov. Jan Brewer, is figuring out what went wrong.

What went wrong? I can tell the governor what went wrong. The state cut its budget on the fallacious theory that it could do the same job with less money. The fact that, in the case of Child Protective Services, it was already doing the job badly, just adds to the irresponsibility of the legislature.

Remember, these are children we’re talking about. It’s one thing to cut the budget for legislative aides or the State Fair. It’s another altogether to treat children the same way. And sure enough, some of those “NI” cases that have now been investigated have turned out to be real cases of injured and neglected kids.

The practice was discovered by Greg McKay, a Phoenix Police Department investigator on loan to CPS to head that Office of Child Welfare Investigations. He said a review of the most recent 3,000 uninvestigated complaints found 23 where there was evidence of criminal conduct and 10 where the allegations that were reported — and ignored at the time — were so alarming as to send an investigator out now.

They also found 125 instances where, after the first report was ignored, there was a second complaint of abuse.

McKay said, though, there was no evidence any child had died.

Well, that’s setting the bar pretty low.

So at this point, we have yet another scandal inside Arizona Child Protective Services. It’s not like it comes as a surprise. This latest shocker is a result of the same policies that produced the previous ones – lack of money, courtesy of a legislature that doesn’t understand the basics of what it takes to run a child protective agency. Industry standards call for around 18 new cases per month per caseworker; Arizona caseworkers routinely received more than 30. So what did the legislature do? It cut funds to the agency.

And now, guess who’s screaming bloody murder. That’s right; the same legislators who figured less money and fewer caseworkers meant greater protection for children. The linked-to article is rife with outraged statements by legislators all of whom seem to want Clarence Carter’s head on a block. And of course, Carter may be part of the problem. Or he may not be.

What’s absolutely certain though is that no one, not Carter or the Man in the Moon could have handled the massive job CPS is tasked with performing on the budget he was given. So for now at least, we’ll have to take the cries of alarm from state legislators to be nothing more than vain attempts to pass the buck to Carter for their own arrogance and ignorance.

But, just in case anyone should be in doubt, consider this (East Valley Tribune, 12/1/13):

The president of the state Senate is blasting a request for lots more money for Child Protective Services, saying the agency may have wasted the funds restored to it in the last two years.

Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, acknowledged lawmakers cut $33 million between the 2008 and 2011 budget years. But he said there were no cuts in 2012, with $27 million restored last fiscal year and another $45 million this year.

In fact, that’s just another lawmaker desperately trying to cover for past mistakes. The simple fact is that, as my piece last September showed, the agency was dramatically understaffed and had been for many months. It would remain so up to this very minute. Too few caseworkers had too many cases. The result was children’s welfare shortchanged.

Was there incompetence at CPS? Probably so, but the buck literally stopped in the state legislature and no amount of trying to pass it now to someone else will hide the fact.

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