One of these days Child Protective Services is going to surprise all of us and show some real contrition and accountability. But judging by the agency's response in the wake of Michael Ibarra's death, today is not that day.

Don't hold your breath waiting for any real changes at the beleaguered agency here in Pima County, which has been rocked by a spate of child deaths in recent years, as well as a series of messy personnel issues that have shot staff morale. The message from Phoenix is loud and clear: The wagons are circled.

To be fair, there are plenty of dedicated CPS staffers here in Pima County. Staffers who do their best for children day in and day out, keeping families together and keeping children safe. It's a high-stress, low-pay, thankless job, and the state does little to back up workers with resources and decent pay.

Paul Bennett, a University of Arizona law professor and director of the Child Advocacy Clinic, said it best.

"They do the best they can," he said. "I don't think they are set up for success. I think they have some successes despite that. As a state we need to either make a commitment to children or we don't. We've sort of made a partial commitment, and it's a shame."

It is a shame. But it's all made far worse when the agency fails to show any accountability or leadership. Whenever disaster strikes in Pima County - and it's struck far too often over the last few years - the agency's head here, Lillian Downing, becomes invisible, rarely facing the bright light of public scrutiny.

Even when she does show up, and that's rare, she seems a bit out of touch. When the heat was on during legislative hearings back in 2007 following the gross mishandling of the Ariana and Tyler Payne case - where CPS workers violated a court order and left the kids with their father, who murdered them - Downing could barely bring herself to admit that CPS workers had done anything wrong. The disconnect would have been laughable, if it weren't so sad.

The same could be said for her handling of relatively recent personnel issues that came to public attention. When a caseworker began dating the father of abused children she was assigned to protect, the relationship was overlooked and the caseworker was promoted to supervisor. When another CPS abuse investigator made graphic and lewd comments about a little girl who may have been abused, he was promoted a few weeks later. These moves killed morale, other workers say.

Now, in the aftermath of the Michael Ibarra case, Downing is again MIA. When CPS finally got around to releasing some of the Ibarra case files last week - files that show what the agency did after Michael's teacher reported his concerns about abuse way back in December - Downing wasn't available for an interview.

"She's busy," agency spokesman Steve Meissner said. "We want to make sure that she is doing what she should be doing, which is doing the best she can to ensure safety of the children who come under her purview. ... It's not appropriate perhaps to take her away from that task to talk to you. That perhaps is not the best use of her time."

If CPS protected kids the way it protects Downing, we'd have no problems at all.

Since Downing wasn't available, let me fill in the gaps. Based on the case reports CPS released last week, here's what Downing should have, and could have legitimately, said:

"Our investigator did a good job. Could more have been done? Of course. But she interviewed the mother, and she interviewed the stepfather, Koffi Dogbevi, who is now charged with murder. She checked backgrounds and interviewed the boy at school. There wasn't enough evidence to remove Michael, but our investigator relayed her concerns to several supervisors and Michael's school and day care. She did everything we would expect of her."

Instead, Janice Mickens, an administrator from Phoenix, did the interview. She said she thought the investigator did a good job, but Mickens is 100 miles away. Mickens might be Downing's superior, but she wasn't involved, and her words don't carry the same weight. Downing should have talked about the case.

The buck is supposed to stop with her, but all too often it seems like it doesn't. Until that changes, expect this agency to keep making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Josh Brodesky can be reached at 573-4242 or