First came the outrage when Arizona’s child welfare agency admitted failing to investigate 6,000 cases of suspected child abuse since 2009.

Then thousands of pages of confidential records on abused and neglected children were found dumped in a Phoenix alley.

Now, the Arizona Department of Public Safety is investigating Arizona’s Child Protective Services, and the state’s Children’s Action Alliance has called for the resignation of Clarence Carter, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

Before any of these recent developments, however, the state’s over-reliance on its beleaguered child-welfare system was already driving away good workers and leaving many children and families without needed help.

With a record number of children in out-of-home care — 15,000 in the state and 5,000 in Pima County — Child Protective Services is removing children from their homes at the highest rate in the nation.

Yet in the last two years, 67 Arizona children died from maltreatment even though they were known to CPS. Some had open cases, and others had cases that had been recently closed, the state’s annual Child Fatality Review shows.

Caseworkers lack time to get to know families or investigate properly because they are overwhelmed, often handling 75 to 80 percent more cases than state and federal guidelines say they should.

The agency is chronically understaffed, with Pima County’s CPS offices short 40 caseworkers as of July 31. More recent staffing numbers were not made available by DES, which oversees CPS. In July alone, nine workers here either quit or were fired, records show.

And earlier this week, a Phoenix resident found thousands of pages of confidential records in an alley and turned them over. The state is investigating how that happened.

By many accounts, CPS is now full of young workers who are short on the life experience needed to assess families struggling with addiction, mental health issues, unemployment and poverty.

“It’s not surprising that Arizona has ended up where it’s found itself,” said Linda Spears, vice-president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America. “They really cut themselves off at the knees.”

retention is difficult

The DES has “really stepped up efforts to recruit and retain more caseworkers to the job,” said Deb Harper, administrator of the state’s child welfare program. But Harper said CPS struggles with retention, so much so that it hired a recruitment specialist about 18 months ago.

“I’ve been in this field 28 years, and we’ve always struggled with our turnover rate,” she said.

The reasons are tough to pinpoint. Many people are dedicated to the job, she said, but others find it overwhelming.

“It’s a very, very difficult job,” she said. “It’s very demanding.”

As of late September, CPS statewide had about 10,000 inactive cases, or ones that had been in the system for 60 days with no updates or documentation.

Harper said some of these cases become temporarily inactive because a caseworker has quit, leaving behind caseloads that are sometimes upwards of 100 cases. All of them must then be reassigned.

And as the state struggles to fill positions and deal with existing cases, new ones keep coming.

Calls to the state’s child abuse hotline, through which most reports of suspected mistreatment come in, jumped from 17,500 during six months in 2011 to 22,100 between October 2012 and March 2013.

“We don’t have true capacity to meet all the demands,” Harper said. “This is the product of a system that is overloaded.”

With each budget cut comes greater assumptions and more unrealistic expectations about what CPS can do to keep children safe, said Karin Kline, program manager for Arizona State University’s Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy.

For example, family preservation programs — through which trained workers help families learn in-home to better care for their children — suffered massive cuts, with $33 million in CPS funding gone between 2008 to 2011. As funds are being restored, fractured relationships with other agencies need to be restored.

“The services and supports that used to exist are few and far between, and families that are seeking help have less access than ever before,” Kline said. “There’s a lot of people we should be pointing fingers at. It’s a systemic problem.”

Calls to CPS often leave second-grade teacher Whitney Weigold frustrated because she never knows what will happen next. During three years of teaching at Walter Douglas Elementary School, she has called CPS seven times.

“I wish things weren’t just taken down as info and then it’s wait for something more to happen,” she said. “Things can escalate very quickly, but they have so many cases, I guess they have to focus on the severe ones.”

She said she wonders how many of her calls, which are mostly for suspected neglect, only get a passing glance or no glance at all.

“Ideally, we should all be working together,” she said. If kids “are not being fed and they are not being bathed, they are not being loved either.”

At the end of each school year, when the buses leave for the last time, she worries about some of her students. What will they do all summer? Will they get enough to eat? Will they move and not come back to the school?

“There are solutions to these problems, but unfortunately, it comes down to money,” she said. “There are abused and neglected children who are not being helped.”

“super stressful”

A desire to help children is the reason Mayela de la Torre took a job as a CPS caseworker 15 years ago, right after she graduated from college.

“I was out to save the world,” she said, smiling at the memory. Her first job was on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation. She said she was shocked by how challenging it turned out to be.

“It’s stressful, it’s super stressful,” she said, describing making house calls alone.

Within two years, she quit. But her work since then, in the courts and teaching parenting classes, has kept her connected to CPS.

“There are a lot of really good workers who care about the kids,” she said of the agency.

Funding shortages have changed the role of CPS from being there mostly to help to being there mostly to hold people accountable, said ASU’s Kline, who started out as a CPS caseworker 28 years ago.

Advocates say this results in CPS investigations not being focused enough on the cause of family dysfunction, but only mitigating the latest crisis.

One case described by a state citizen review panel, for example, shows CPS visited one family several times over a 15-year period and focused, each time, on the dirty conditions of the home without ever addressing the mother’s debilitating depression.

“The case was repeatedly closed quickly, even when the court was involved, once the home was cleaned,” the 2011 report said.

About a year ago, not long after Earl Anhill and Maria Burt‘s 20-year relationship ended, their teen daughters — then 17 and 15 — were placed in a group home. The charges were verbal abuse and neglect.

Both parents agree their lives were a mess. There was fighting, and their girls were acting out, missing school and running away.

During the next year, the family had four different CPS workers. Burt said a couple seemed disinterested at best, while the others “would bend over backwards to help us.”

“The one we have right now is caring and decent and is really trying to help,” she said. “The good ones are really good.”

At CPS’ urging, Burt took anger management classes, parenting classes and joined a 12-step program.

Her girls are now back with her.

“It allowed me to see things differently,” she said of the classes. “I have a different perspective now.”

Burt took careful notes during her parenting classes, and said she’s learned useful tools for working with her daughters.

“Now I’ve got that to refer back to when I need it,” she said. “It helped a lot.”

Anhill found the year frustrating, in large part because they kept being assigned new caseworkers, after two quit and one was moved to another job.

“There were a lot of roadblocks,” he said.

Over time, he realized the CPS workers were missing appointments because they were so overwhelmed with cases. He couldn’t help his daughters find work, for example, or pick them up from school because the caseworker, then considered the legal guardian, didn’t show up to sign paperwork.

The number of players in a single CPS case has become “too big and too complicated” for the families, said Debbie Mack of Children’s Village, a group home. There are several players — a caseworker, a judge, an attorney, a therapist — and many things to keep track of, which can be especially difficult for people who are already struggling.

“It keeps families apart, and it keeps kids in the system who shouldn’t be,” she said.

Anhill, who lives in the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation, agrees the case felt big and overwhelming. But in hindsight he sees there was also progress, especially since the girls are back with their mother.

But progress is not a word that describes the case of 2-year-old Brooke Valenzuela, who barely survived a severe beating, allegedly by her mother’s boyfriend, Oscar Aguirre.

The first report on Brooke was brought to CPS’ attention in late November 2011 when the toddler told the person making the report that “Oscar hit face.” Brooke, it was documented, had a swollen upper lip, and a red eye. She also had deep bruising, two inches wide and running from her shoulders to her waist.

A few weeks later, in early December, Brooke was taken to a doctor’s office with a swollen, infected tongue and more bruising, this time on her stomach and forehead.

Five more weeks passed. During this time, CPS was “in the process of referring (Brooke’s) mother for services,” DES records show.

The final report came in mid-January: Brooke was at the hospital with four broken ribs, a lacerated kidney and liver, a punctured lung and a damaged spleen.

Since Tucson toddler Za’Naya Flores’s death from starvation nearly two years ago, three more Pima County children with open or recently closed CPS cases have died, and three others nearly died.

In Za’Naya’s case, CPS worker Donald Hauser was fired for copying-and-pasting the same case notes over and over instead of actually visiting the toddler, who was left alone with her abusers. Hauser blamed an overwhelming caseload and said his pleas for help went unanswered.

Since Za’Naya’s death, CPS was involved in the cases of Brooke Valenzuela as well as baby boys Joshua Souter and Roberto Robles, all of whom nearly died after being severely abused.

There are also unanswered questions about the CPS cases of Tucson children who died in the last two years: Adyson Gaxiola, Vanessa Martinez and Patrick Smith.

More than a month after first requesting information about those cases, DES has failed to provide details such as how many cases the workers assigned to those children were simultaneously trying to balance, or whether anyone was disciplined or fired as a result.

serious caseload issue

Pauline Machiche took over as Pima County’s new CPS program manager in February.

Machiche agrees that too often, caseworkers get families at crisis points instead of early on, when issues might still be mitigated through substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment or parenting classes.

Balancing caseloads is one of her office’s biggest challenges, she said. They are trying to have more experienced workers pick up cases that are left by others who quit, are fired or have been promoted within the agency.

“The caseload issue is very serious,” said Machiche, who has worked for CPS for 21 years. “When you have high caseloads, you are not able to do all that is necessary to keep kids safe.”

Last fiscal year, DES added $46 million in child welfare funds and this year added $57.5 million. The state has also approved 200 additional caseworkers.

The DES is requesting an additional $65 million for fiscal 2015 to fund 444 more child welfare workers, including 50 in the Office of Child Welfare Investigations, created in 2012 as a partnership between CPS and law enforcement.

Machiche said they are at a turning point and, with funding being restored, are working on ways to better engage families early on.

“We have to look at things differently,” she said. “We can’t be doing the same thing.”

CPS administrator Harper said professional development is “sorely needed” to help CPS workers “really understand what kind of trauma parents come to us with.

“Often, they are victims of abuse and neglect themselves, and we need to sit down and take the time to really engage that person, to really understand their story and to get away from the shame and the blame.”

Too much emphasis on either removal and reunification is dangerous, said Spears, of the Child Welfare League of America.

Instead, she said, CPS needs to revamp its system, redo its standards and look to a new model of child protection.

One area of emphasis should be building better collaboration between agencies that provide support services for CPS, Spears said.

“We must continually monitor risk and resources,” she said. “Families are dynamic entities and not one service fits all. It’s about daycare. It’s about mental health treatment in the community.”

In short, she said, for Arizona to succeed at helping its most vulnerable children, many areas need attention.

“Is there science, is there research enough to help predict when kids are at greatest risk?” she said. “We’re not quite good enough at it yet, at identifying the child who might die.”

Reporter Patty Machelor: 806-7754 or pmachelor@azstarnet.com