Updated: 6,000 Arizona child abuse complaints not investigated

2013-11-21T11:11:00Z 2013-11-21T15:24:28Z Updated: 6,000 Arizona child abuse complaints not investigatedBy Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star
November 21, 2013 11:11 am  • 

PHOENIX — Close to one out of every 12 complaints of child abuse since January were not investigated because Child Protective Services workers deemed them not important enough to follow through, agency officials said Thursday.

Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter said Thursday his top investigator just learned in the last two weeks that there has been an unofficial process in the agency of marking certain complaints "not investigated'' even before any further inquiry was done. He said the process, started as a way to prioritize cases to deal with limited resources, had accelerated to the point where nearly half those 6,000 "NI'' cases found since 2009 occurred just this year.

In fact, the process would still be going on except for what basically amounts to it being accidentally discovered two weeks ago by Gregory McKay, head of the agency's Office of Child Welfare Investigations. Carter said he was shocked by the findings.

"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. And Carter said that, of the nearly 3,000 cases shunted aside since January 1, a review already underway shows that about 1,700 of them clearly require further investigation and review.

Potentially more significant, of those complaints marked "NI'' already reviewed, McKay said it turns out there have been 125 subsequent reports of abuse involving the same people. But he said caseworkers assigned to investigate those new complaints never knew of the earlier calls because of the way CPS keeps its records.

Carter denied any involvement in instituting or approving the practice. But Carter sidestepped repeated questions of who in the agency first authorized the use of this "NI'' designation to shunt complaints off so that there was not even a follow-up call.

"What I would ask is that you would allow me to complete my full review in order to be able to answer those questions,'' he said.

But Gov. Jan Brewer is taking the issue out of his hands. She has ordered the state Department of Public Safety to determine "precisely how and why this inexcusable failure occurred.''

Brewer told Capitol Media Services that she was confident in Clarence's ability to run the difficult agency when she appointed him in 2011. But the governor said she is reserving judgment on what happens from here until she has a final report.

"Then we can decide who is responsible,'' she said.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who serves on a special CPS oversight panel, said Thursday he doubted whether the public would even know about the problem -- and whether the practice would not still be going on -- had Brewer and the Legislature not acted last year to create the Office of Child Welfare Investigations. He said without that office "you'd have the same insular bureaucracy protecting itself and refusing to answer questions as we had before.''

Brewer said she was upset that so many cases had gone uninvestigated, particularly as state law requires follow up of some sort for every complaint.

"This is a nightmare and we're not going to tolerate it,'' the governor said, calling what happened "an inexcusable failure.''

"These children ought to be respected for who they are,'' she continued. "They need the protection of the state to protect them from this type of abuse.''

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, who chairs the Child Protective Oversight committee, said Thursday she retains her confidence in Carter's ability to lead DES.

"I've worked very well with director Carter and expect to do so going forward,'' she said.

But Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, who also serves on the same panel, said what was found at CPS is just another example of agencies under Brewer's control not taking matters as seriously as they should.

"The entire reason this agency exists is to protect children,'' she said. "And what they told us today is they have not.''

Dana Naimark, president of the Children's Action Alliance, called the findings "incredibly disturbing.''

But she also said that, in some ways, they are not surprising.

"This is another piece of evidence showing us how overwhelmed the system is and that it cannot function,'' said Naimark, a child advocacy organization. She said there are 10,000 cases listed as "inactive,'' meaning there has been no follow-up for at least 60 days, and that it takes "months and months'' to close cases that should be addressed much quicker.

And Maricopa County

Carter said the screening process that shunted cases aside has stopped and investigators are now going back through the rest of those 6,000 cases to see whether further action is appropriate.

But Naimark questioned how that will be possible to do that and respond to new complaints given that the agency already is so far behind. Carter would provide no specifics.

"I can't tell you exactly at this moment how this is going to happen,'' he said.

"There are 24 hours in a day, our resources are finite,'' Carter continued. "But this is a necessity.''

The disclosure comes as the agency already is dealing with complaints that it does an inadequate job even in cases where caseworkers do go out and investigate but decide not to remove a child from a home. There have been multiple cases where those children later end up dead, including three in a one-month period.

Carter said Thursday that the process which allowed cases to be marked "NI'' is now gone. But he said that CPS workers still will have to prioritize prioritizing all complaints, though he said all of them will get at least some sort of follow up.

As McKay describes it, calls come into the CPS "hotline,'' where staffers decide, first, whether it is even an allegation of abuse and, second, whether there is evidence a crime has been committed. All of those cases were then entered into the computer to be sent to the appropriate field office.

But McKay said that a special team was reviewing the cases and deciding that those cases where there was no immediate evidence of a crime should be marked "NI'' and removed from the computer queue even before a field supervisor got a look.

McKay said he learned about the process only after a police officer had asked one of his investigators about the status of a case where an older sibling was accused of molesting a younger one. His own inquiry into that case, made nine months after the initial report, found that "NI'' designation.

But what really pointed up this was more than an isolated incident was following up on another complaint by a child who called to say his father had burned his brother with an iron. When McKay followed up, he said the hotline specialist told him that the procedure has been that any case where there was no evidence of immediate criminal harm was marked "NI.''

That, said McKay, led his team to go back through older records.

"What we have found is that, in the process of making the determinations of cases that would have a lower level of intervention, many cases have gotten into that bucket, if you would, that we believe should not be there,'' Carter said.

McKay did not provide specifics. But he said that, to date, his investigators have found no case where a child has died because of the failure to follow up.

Carter said the use of that "NI'' designation started in 2009. He said it was done "relatively sparingly'' until the last six or seven months.

"We've looked at the escalation of that process,'' he said.

PHOENIX — About 6,000 complaints of child abuse were not investigated since 2009 because state Child Protective Services workers simply decided, based on the information from a phone call, that they were not important enough to follow through.

Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter this morning said his top investigator just learned in the last two weeks that there had been an unofficial process of marking certain complaints "not investigated'' even before any further inquiry was done. He said the process, started as a way to prioritize cases, had accelerated to the point where nearly half those "NI'' cases were complaints made since the first of this year.

And the process would still be going on except for what basically amounts to an accidental discovery by Gregory McKay, head of the agency's Office of Child Welfare Investigations. Carter said he was shocked by the findings.

"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. And Carter said the governor, informed of what was going on, gave a response for which "some of that might not be printable.''

Carter said the screening process that shunted cases aside has stopped and investigators are now going back through those 6,000 cases to see whether further action is appropriate. But the DES director, who has said his caseworkers already are overburdened, would not say exactly how all that will happen.

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