PHOENIX — Close to one out of every 12 complaints of child abuse since January were not investigated because 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 said Thursday his top investigator just learned in the last two weeks there has been an unofficial policy 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 cases designated “NI” since 2009 occurred just this year despite state law there be at least some investigation of every complaint that meets certain criteria.
In fact, the practice would still be going on except for it being accidentally discovered two weeks ago by Gregory McKay, head of the agency's newly created Office of Child Welfare Investigations. Carter, who said he knew nothing of the practice, 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 of the nearly 3,000 cases shunted aside since Jan. 1, a review conducted to this point found 23 complaints of actual criminal conduct — and 10 were so concerning that a caseworker was immediately sent out.
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. 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 he 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.
Gov. Jan Brewer took the issue out of his hands, ordering the state Department of Public Safety to determine “precisely how and why this inexcusable failure occurred.”
Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, who serves on a special CPS oversight committee, questioned whether even that will provide real answers of “who to hold accountable.” She pointed out DPS, like DES, ultimately reports to the governor.
Brewer told Capitol Media Services she named Carter to head DES in 2011 because she was confident of his ability to run the wide-ranging agency. Beyond CPS, it is responsible for everything from child support and food stamps to unemployment benefits.
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 that CPS oversight panel, said Thursday he doubted whether the public would ever have been exposed 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, a member of the CPS panel, 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 McCune Davis 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.
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.
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.
The latest disclosure comes on top of complaints that that CPS does a poor job even in cases where caseworkers do go out and investigate. There have been multiple cases where staffers do go out, decide not to remove a child from a home but a youngster later ends up dead, including three in a one-month period earlier this year.
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.
McKay said that a special team was reviewing the cases and deciding that some which showed no immediate evidence of a crime should be marked “NI.” That removed them 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.
A second similar incident McKay discovered 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.
Brewer said she wants details of exactly how the practice got started, who approved it and who knew about it. But she said it is “totally unacceptable” to blame the practice on lack of funding.
The governor said she has fought for more funding as the state's economy has improved, getting lawmakers earlier this year to approve an additional 200 employees, including caseworkers.
Carter is asking for another 350 workers for this coming budget year. But Brewer said that, whatever the funding, it's no excuse.
“It's the law” that every complaint which meets certain criteria be investigated, she said. “And the law must be followed.”