PHOENIX — Six state workers associated with having nearly 6,600 reports of child abuse ignored were fired Wednesday.

Charles Flanagan, head of the new Division of Child Safety and Family Services, said five were upper-level managers working in the agency’s main office in Phoenix, who were part of a special team charged with handling the backlog of cases at Child Protective Services.

He said they were found to have been instrumental in creating and implementing a policy that resulted in workers ignoring state laws that require all complaints be investigated.

The firings came after an extensive investigation by the state Department of Public Safety, he said — an investigation that found these were the people most responsible. They had been on administrative leave for months.

Separately, Clarence Carter, director of the Department of Economic Security, fired a sixth employee, Sharon Sergent, who had been deputy director of programs at his agency. The DPS report said she had oversight of what had been Child Protective Services and that she was aware that complaints were not being investigated.

Terry Woods, attorney for the five fired former CPS workers, said his clients are scapegoats for larger problems at the agency.

He acknowledged all were “at will” employees, meaning they could be fired for no reason at all. But Woods said the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled even those without merit protections can sue if they are fired for a reason contrary to public policy.

And Woods said firing someone to assign blame for a larger problem at the agency, and for following orders from Sergent, who was their supervisor, certainly fits that definition.

Firing Sergent is as high up as Wednesday’s action goes.

Flanagan said the DPS report found no evidence that Carter, who was in charge of Child Protective Services until those duties were removed from him last year by Gov. Jan Brewer, knew of the unofficial policy of marking cases “NI” — “not for investigation.”

Flanagan would not comment on whether he thought Carter, who remains in charge of other DES operations, should have been aware of what was going on at CPS.

Flanagan said there appear to have been others involved in the policy of ignoring the law, or at least aware of it. But he said they left the agency before the lapse was discovered last November.

He also said the DPS report showed no evidence of a malicious intent by the five, who had been working at what was Child Protective Services.

“It appears what they were trying to do is take some of the workload off of the field,” he said, with abuse and neglect complaints coming in faster than caseworkers could handle them. Complicating matters, he said, were cuts in the CPS budget.

“This group became the de facto leadership of CPS,” Flanagan said. He said they made the determination there was a “crushing workload.”

“And so they made a decision, a very bad one, a dysfunctional decision, to remove cases from the field by taking those reports, reviewing them, based on very nebulous, amorphous rules,” Flanagan said.

But what made the problem worse, Flanagan said, is that they not only broke the law with the goal of prioritizing cases, but they didn’t even do a very good job of it.

In following up on those nearly 6,600 uninvestigated complaints, child-welfare workers subsequently removed 500 children from their homes. And that’s with 1,000 complaints yet to be fully reviewed.

The DPS report comes as a separate group of state officials and lawmakers is working to craft legislation to actually make what was CPS into a full-blown independent state agency with Flanagan, as its boss, reporting directly to the governor.

Brewer has said she will call lawmakers into special session to form the agency after that report is done. She also wants legislators to provide more funds for caseworkers than they already have approved for the coming year.

Flanagan said much of what DPS investigators found was not new. He said much of how the NI policy was set up was previously discovered by what was dubbed the Child Advocate Response Examination team, named separately by Brewer to see what went wrong.

But Flanagan said the DPS report provides documentation of “how dysfunctional the agency is.”

“This organization was sick ... and needed to be completely overhauled,” he said. “And that’s what we’re in the business of doing.”

Woods said that proves his point, that his clients are being treated unfairly — and possibly illegally.

“If Director Flanagan believes this was a diseased, dysfunctional organization, the solution wasn’t to fire my five gals,” he said. “They’re not responsible for the disease and the dysfunction.”

He said all five were volunteers for the special team given the task of dealing with a backlog of complaints — a backlog he said they did not cause.

They came up with a plan that was approved by Sergent, as their supervisor, he said. If there’s blame, “that lands above their pay grade,” he said.