Josh Brodesky: CPS covered up tragic fact: Za' Naya could have been saved

2012-09-23T00:00:00Z Josh Brodesky: CPS covered up tragic fact: Za' Naya could have been savedJosh Brodesky Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 23, 2012 12:00 am  • 

This might be the saddest CPS story I have ever told. Considering how many tragedies we've seen over the years with Child Protective Services, that's really saying something.

Za' Naya Flores was a toddler who starved to death on Jan. 12.

Yes, I've written about her before, but stick with me. It's the least you could do for her.

She was 21 months old when medics and police officers discovered her emaciated body. Her skin sagged off her bones. She was covered in bruises.

And yet, for months her CPS caseworker copied and pasted his notes, reporting again and again that Za' Naya was happy and healthy.

This failure is outrageous and tragic enough - and it's been reported - but it's only part of her story. It's the part CPS has released.

What the agency has literally covered up with black ink is this: Just one month before Za' Naya was found dead, CPS could have saved her.

One month to the day.

As I recently outlined, a little more than a year ago Child Protective Services created special SWAT units to address a backlog of nearly 10,000 unfinished cases across the state. The SWAT units would review cases that had sat open for months or had never been investigated. This team of veteran workers would review cases, closing them or sending them back for renewed investigation.

Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter even once held a press conference celebrating SWAT's success in cutting the case backlog by 73 percent.

In Pima County, though, the SWAT unit didn't follow protocols. Instead, records have shown it rushed to close cases, including one involving Za' Naya's siblings.

CPS refuses to talk about this.

"As the Department previously addressed in our telephonic interview with you a month or so ago regarding the Flores case, etc., was that the Department conducted a review of the process, found irregularities and immediately sent a team of experts to Pima County where they completed a review of all cases and took appropriate action," Tasya Peterson, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Economic Security, wrote me in an email.

Irregularities.

That is one way to describe closing a case a month before a kid starves to death.

It took months, but I was finally able to track down a clean copy of the case note that spells out the SWAT closure.

In November, a report was made to CPS accusing a male relative of abusing two of Za' Naya's siblings.

It's unclear what CPS did to investigate these claims, but the case must have gone stale because it was kicked over to the SWAT unit. The SWAT unit - Social Worker Assessment Team - reviewed the case file in December. It was noted that Za' Naya's mom, Kiyana Higgins, had five prior CPS reports dating to 2006 due to neglect and abuse. It also said Higgins was arrested for DUI in 2009, and that she had been acquitted of child abuse charges in 2010.

It's unclear from the notes if any interviews were done specifically by CPS. The notes reference a Tucson Police Department investigation. They also state the mother was interviewed by the Southern Arizona Children's Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that handles the early investigative stages of abuse cases.

Child Protective Services did not interview the relative suspected of abuse. Instead, CPS workers decided the home was safe because Higgins said she was not allowing him to contact the children.

An abusive mother's promise. The SWAT unit decided this was enough.

"Administrative Decision: SWAT Closure."

Higgins is now charged with murdering her daughter.

The whole point of the SWAT unit was to assess danger in these stale cases and, if needed, have them reinvestigated. Instead, the SWAT unit here closed the case and let Za' Naya starve over the next month.

If SWAT had reassigned the case or sent a worker to the home, if someone had interviewed the mother or the relative under suspicion, maybe this story would be different.

Here's what Veronica Bossack, an administrator with CPS, told me in July when I asked about the SWAT failure.

"This is a work in progress and, as anything you put in place, you are going to always find some kind of little gaps and holes. And so along the way we did uncover some inconsistencies."

Like a kid starving to death.

There are many layers here. Big picture, how many cases did SWAT inappropriately close in Pima County? Just this one? Dozens? Hundreds?

The answer matters. We are talking about our at-risk kids.

The agency has also insisted that it has held people accountable for this failure. How?

"Staff members were retrained. Personnel actions were taken as a result of the Flores case. Therefore, all the issues were addressed by the Department," CPS spokeswoman Peterson wrote.

And yet, the agency has refused to release personnel records, saying (laughably) that administrative leave is not disciplinary action. It let June Willson, who oversaw the SWAT program in Pima County, resign. It continues to employ Lillian Downing, who oversaw the agency in Pima County, in some kind of nebulous role.

And perhaps most egregiously, it covered up the case notes about the SWAT failure in the Flores case. The agency blacked them out and covered it up. By doing so, CPS once again took child privacy, and used it to protect itself.

This is Josh Brodesky's last column for the Arizona Daily Star (see note on Page C1). You can track him down on Facebook and Twitter.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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