PHOENIX — Accusing Child Protective Services of “hiding or not disclosing” information, Gov. Jan Brewer on Tuesday named a special panel of current and former legislators and others to take a closer look at the agency.
Brewer said the panel will most immediately provide oversight for the ongoing screening and follow-up of the more than 6,500 reports of abuse over four years that were never investigated. But she also wants the group to do a deeper examination of how CPS operates and give her a report.
Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, who will be a member of what’s been dubbed the Child Advocate Response Examination — CARE — team, called the move long overdue.
“They will bring transparency to an agency that has been cloaked in secrecy, and integrity to a process that has been corrupt,” she said.
Brewer conceded the agency has been somewhat opaque in how it operates, some of which she said is legally necessary because of confidentiality rules.
“But I think that we must strive, moving forward now, with new reforms to see that there’s a lot more transparency,” the governor said. “ ’Cause when there isn’t transparency, sometimes this is what we end up with.”
Brewer was referring to the reports of abuse to a Child Protective Services hotline since the beginning of 2009 that were dismissed before they ever reached a field office. Members of a special team simply marked them as “NI,” as in not for investigation.
About half of these occurred this year, until the practice was unearthed by a special investigator placed in CPS by Brewer and the Legislature.
But Brewer dismissed calls by some, including Children’s Action Alliance, to fire Clarence Carter as director of the Department of Economic Security, the parent agency of CPS.
The governor said she believes Carter is doing a “fine job,” and not only had nothing to do with creating the problem, but was unaware of it until the special investigator found it.
Brewer does, however, want to know who made the decisions to allow cases to be marked NI.
“There has been a break in the command; we will get to the bottom of this and somebody — people — will be held accountable,” she said. “We’re not going to tolerate this.”
Carter, who stood behind Brewer during the announcement, did not speak.
The new CARE team does not include anyone from Children’s Action Alliance, one of the most vocal critics of CPS. But Dana Wolfe Naimark, the organization’s president, said she does not feel slighted and is pleased with the makeup of the team.
Naimark said overseeing how CPS deals with those 6,500 uninvestigated cases is only a first step. She said someone needs to take a deeper look into the agency’s operation.
She pointed out that there are about 10,000 child-abuse cases that are listed as “inactive,” meaning there has been no action taken on them in at least two months. And, she said, 12,000 cases that were listed as open on June 30 were still uninvestigated as of the end of September, the most recent figures available.
“They should have been completed by then,” Naimark said.
The Department of Economic Security is doing its own review. And Brewer also directed the Department of Public Safety to take a look at exactly how CPS ended up with what became an informal — and illegal — practice of shunting cases off to the side without at least some further inquiry.
But Scott Smith, the governor’s chief of staff, conceded those moves still left critics of the agency unsatisfied.
“There were calls for an independent look on these cases,” Smith said. “We’re responding to that.”
The governor promised to have “eyes on each and every one” of the children in those uninvestigated complaints.
What constitutes “eyes,” however, is a bit murkier.
Carter already has said some of the uninvestigated reports will be handled through an “alternative investigation.”
That applies to complaints that came in from someone mandated to report abuse, like a teacher, doctor or police officer. CPS rules allow caseworkers to close those with a phone call to the person who made the report if there is no evidence that child or siblings are either current victims of maltreatment or are at “risk of imminent harm.”
Smith said it was the governor’s assumption in each of these missed cases there would be contact by a caseworker. He said the only exceptions might be for situations where a child has since turned 18.
But Charles Flanagan, director of the Department of Juvenile Corrections and chairman of the new task force, said he presumes the alternative investigation process will remain in place.