Caseworkers' acts often seem at odds with their CPS jobs

2007-05-19T00:00:00Z Caseworkers' acts often seem at odds with their CPS jobsBy Josh Brodesky ARIZONA DAILY STAR Arizona Daily Star
May 19, 2007 12:00 am  • 

Former Child Protective Services case manager Armando Acuna was investigated by police for an inappropriate romantic relationship with one of his teen-age charges in 2003.

But Acuna, now 56, was never charged, and voluntarily resigned from CPS without ever being disciplined.

His story is one of several cases coming to light in which CPS caseworkers' personal actions appear to have been in conflict with their professional responsibility.

CPS spokeswoman Liz Barker Alvarez said CPS did its own investigation of Acuna once it was notified about the relationship. She said Acuna's case, and others in which case-manager behavior was questioned, do not accurately reflect CPS.

"We have almost 1,000 or more CPS specialists who work for us," Barker Alvarez said. "Some of them do things that are inappropriate and are subsequently disciplined for it."

Although Acuna resigned, the other two caseworkers remain with the CPS Tucson office. One has been promoted. There is no record either was disciplined.

● In 2004, a CPS investigator responding to an abuse report learned CPS supervisor Amy Gile was dating the father of the abused child. The two met when Gile was the father's case manager following an earlier abuse complaint.

Gile not only may have helped the father keep his kids despite abuse charges, records show, but she also was aware of a substantiated incident of abuse that occurred during her relationship.

● In 2002, CPS worker Gary Sundell was charged with assault after he threw an unidentified object at a minor relative, court documents show. The charges were dismissed after Sundell agreed to go to counseling and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

In the face of questions about the Gile case, Department of Economic Security this week started reviewing its policies for CPS case managers' relationships with former clients.

The current rules do not prohibit case managers from getting involved with former clients, although such relationships are discouraged, the department said in a news release.

"I couldn't say what the changes that may result will be," Barker Alvarez said. "We want to make sure we will do a really thorough look at what we currently have and what exists in other states that relate to child-welfare professionals."

But to state Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican, the Acuna and Gile cases underscore the need for greater transparency in an agency largely shielded by confidentiality laws.

"When these types of instances come out in other institutions the whole world knows about it, and no one knows for two or three years about those incidents that happened at CPS," he said.

Phone calls, love notes

In Acuna's case, workers at the girl's Tucson group home were concerned about the relationship for months before police got involved.

Acuna looked at her "like a girlfriend," they told police, according to reports. He would drop her off at the home, then call five minutes later to make sure she was OK. The two even swapped love notes and poems. While many kids in the home rarely saw their case managers, Acuna met with the girl almost daily.

Acuna took over the girl's case in November 2002, records show. She was a student at Sunnyside High School and had been placed in a group home because of alleged physical abuse.

The concerns came to a head in October 2003 after Acuna provided the girl, by then 17, with a weekend pass to stay at a friend's house instead of her group home, police reports say.

He told group-home employees she needed the pass for work. But when a staff member called her job site, they learned she had quit, prompting the staff to contact police and CPS.

Where the girl spent that weekend is unclear. Police reports say Acuna refused to provide the group home with an address for the friend's house.

A worker, concerned about the lack of information, looked up an address Acuna provided for a previous weekend pass and gave it to police. It turned out to be a dirt lot.

Acuna told police he had taken out the pass so she could visit her mother, from whose home she had been removed.

During a police interview, the officers asked where the girl was. Acuna called her, and the officers overheard him tell her in Spanish not to tell the police anything.

He also asked them if he was being investigated for kidnapping because he took the girl and her sister to Nogales.

Employees at the restaurant where the girl worked said sometimes the couple ate together and fed each other, and they often held hands. When the girl quit, the restaurant staff told Acuna not to come back.

Their correspondence and notes from the girl's diary were intimate, and Acuna told police he had e-mailed the girl poems.

"With one glance, I feel like I'm in heaven. With a laugh from you, I make do. With a kiss from you, I go crazy and give you another kiss on that delicious mouth that makes me dream," one of the letters says in Spanish, although it's unclear which one wrote it.

In her diary, she indicates she has her own questions about the relationship.

"Maybe I'm confused and maybe I don't love him, and it was only an idea and I don't want to offer him something until I'm sure," she wrote in Spanish. "But what I know is that it hurts that he is gone. I hope he comes back soon."

In the end, police closed their investigation because neither the girl nor Acuna would cooperate. He'd been on sick leave when the investigation started and told police he planned to quit CPS soon. He did in October 2003, shortly after the case closed.

State lawmaker Paton, who is taking part in legislative hearings on CPS, questioned whether the police report is included in CPS case reports involving the girl.

"Surely her interaction with him affected her emotional health," he said. "She's a ward of the state, and if it's not reflected in the case file that we paid to be prepared, did the state really serve her?"

Barker Alvarez said she did not know if the police report was filed with the girl's case summary, but that it should have been. "There was an investigation that was going on and I think that's important to note," she said.

Dates with a former client

CPS officials first learned in December 2004 that Amy Gile was involved with an abusive father of three who had been her clients from December 2000 through October 2002.

Investigators were called to a day-care center after teachers reported the father's then-4-year-old boy was covered in bright red welts, records show. The boy told investigators his father beat him when he wet his bed and made him wash his underwear in the toilet.

When the investigator checked the child's emergency card, Gile was listed as the contact, the police report states.

Gile told police she began dating the father in early 2004, but the father's then-10-year-old daughter said Gile started dating her dad after the earlier case closed in 2002.

"My dad met her at a park and brought her flowers and they've been dating ever since," she said.

CPS opened an abuse file on the father in 1995. The agency took custody of the kids in 2000, after their mother said she couldn't care for them. The mother was later arrested and convicted of burglary and armed robbery.

CPS was trying to reunify the family and return the children to their father when he was arrested in 2001 on a disorderly-conduct charge. He asked the court for leniency because he did not want to lose his children.

With the support of his case manager — Gile — he was sentenced to a 12-month work furlough and two years' probation. But he violated his work furlough and ended up serving two months in jail.

After he was released, CPS retained custody but allowed the kids to live with their father. Then, in August 2002 CPS substantiated another report of abuse after his daughter went to school with bruises and swelling on her face.

A prosecutor declined to charge him, citing the need to keep the family together. Six weeks later, custody was returned to the father.

Gile told investigators she knew about the 2002 abuse complaint, but she thought the daughter had lied about the incident. She said he yelled profanity at the kids often.

But she also said she had never seen the father discipline the children or any serious injuries to the children. If she had seen any injuries, she said, she would have reported them.

Gile did not return Star telephone calls.

"The thing that interested me most about the Gile case more than anything is the fact that there was a substantiated case of abuse while they were in CPS' legal custody," Rep. Paton said. "When kids are taken away from the parent, and in the process of trying to get those kids back they (the parents) abuse them all over again, and it was substantiated, why do they get them back?"

Domestic-violence charge

Gary Sundell has been with CPS since 1979 and now works as a court liaison.

In November 2002, he was charged with domestic violence after throwing something at a young relative during an argument with his wife, police reports and court records show.

The charges were dismissed after he completed a treatment plan that included counseling and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Sundell declined to comment.

CPS officials said they had not known Sundell was arrested. They said that at that time the department did background checks every three years.

"Child-welfare workers can't have problems in their lives?" said Ken Deibert, deputy DES director. "It seems like if somebody has a rough spot in their life, they get help, they get services, they get their lives together. What's wrong with that?"

CPS officials said the agency tries to monitor employees to the degree it can.

Janice Mickens, an administrator with CPS, said supervisors oversee six case managers who often are handling about 20 cases each, but if an allegation of abuse or inappropriate behavior is made, the agency takes action.

"CPS workers are out in the field a lot," she said. "There isn't anybody following them around in the day to see where they are supposed to be."

In 2004, the department switched to a clearance-card system that is linked to fingerprints. If an employee is arrested, CPS is notified. A conviction, and he or she loses the job.

Listen to the police and fire departments on StarNet while reading crime-related stories and blogs and looking at slide shows of the most-wanted fugitives.

● Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 807-7789 or

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