PHOENIX — The embattled director of the Department of Economic Security said Tuesday that his agency has been telling the governor, lawmakers and everyone else for years that some complaints of child abuse were not being investigated.

Clarence Carter said the semiannual reports of child welfare that DES is required by law to file have detailed not only the number of complaints received but a separate listing of those “not responded to.” And he said these are the same 6,554 reports that were disclosed last month as being marked NI, as in not investigated.

“No one should have been aghast,” he told Capitol Media Services, even though they were listed as “not responded to” versus “not investigated.”

But gubernatorial press aide Andrew Wilder, responding to questions of why his boss did not know about all the uninvestigated cases until now, suggested the agency essentially hid the information in plain sight. He said the public reports were, at best, inaccurate and “at worst ... intentionally misleading.”

Wilder would not say whether his boss believes that it was Carter, her hand-picked appointee, who was responsible. He said that will ultimately be determined as part of a review of what happened by the state Department of Public Safety.

The question of who knew what — and when — comes as DES is under fire after a new internal investigator placed in the agency this year said he found more than 6,500 such complaints over four years marked “NI.” The disclosure has caused a public outcry, spawned two investigations and resulted in calls for Gov. Jan Brewer to fire Carter if he does not leave on his own.

DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said CPS established a “triage process” as far back as 2009 when complaints exceeded the agency’s capacity.

“As a result, lower-risk reports were not responded to,” she said. And that fact, said Peterson, was reported in the semi-annual public reports.

It was only in October, Carter said, that he discovered that the six workers empowered to sideline complaints were doing so using a standard of whether a child was in “imminent danger.”

That, he said, is not what the law requires.

These cases now have been taken from CPS and put under the control of a special Child Advocate Response Examination team appointed by the governor.

When internal investigator Gregory McKay disclosed those NI cases last month, Carter professed surprise.

“The idea that there are 6,000 cases that we don’t know whether or not children are safe, that’s cause for grave alarm,” he said on Nov. 21.

But the report covering six months ending March 31, 2012, lists 940 complaints as “not responded to.” And there were 1,603 with similar designations for the same period ending this past March 31.

It is a violation of state law for CPS not to investigate every complaint of abuse or neglect that the agency receives.

What the governor and other readers of the report should have known is less clear.

For example, the most recent report of 1,603 cases not responded to says each “received an alternative assessment rather than being responded to by a CPS investigator.” And the Legislature has allowed for such responses in limited cases where there is no indication a child is unsafe.

But the evidence gathered so far by that CARE team shows that 119 of the 6,554 complaints were so serious as to require an immediate response now by a caseworker.

Wilder said Brewer had no idea what was going on. And he said the semiannual reports provided no clue.

“It is unreasonable to expect that the reader would conclude from the report that thousands of legitimate reports of child abuse and neglect were not being investigated,” he said. “Had the reports truly and accurately reported the status of ‘not investigated’ cases, this practice would have been uncovered much sooner.”

Carter, however, said nothing was hidden.

“The report is written in a way that a reasonable person could raise the question of ‘what does not responded to mean?’ ” he said. “If this means that we didn’t do anything about this case, then how did that happen?”

Carter conceded though, the disclosure “gets real murky” because some versions of the semiannual reports said these cases were being handled through an alternative in-depth assessment. That, he said, was not happening.

“Clearly if many of these had that kind of assessment, they would not have been dispositioned this way” as being at least reviewed.