The top prosecutor in the state’s largest county is weighing the possibility of a grand jury probe of Child Protective Services.
Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley told Capitol Media Services on Tuesday he’s not looking to indict individual caseworkers, despite instances in which children brought to the attention of the agency later died or were injured.
But Romley said an inquiry by some group apart from state government — and with the power to subpoena testimony and records — needs to take a closer look at how CPS operates.
"I don’t want to do it,’’ Romley said. "But I also don’t want to have to sit there and see another picture of a child that has been beaten to death or that’s been left in a room and CPS has been there 10 times, and at 7 years of age or 9 years of age is 35 pounds.’’
His office is the agency that prosecutes such cases in Maricopa County after parents or other caregivers are charged.
He said such incidents have left him and his senior staff members frustrated at repeated promises that the situation at the agency is changing.
Romley has scheduled a press conference today to discuss more details.
Romley and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall also want to separate CPS from the Department of Economic Security, the agency under which it operates, because of their differing overall purposes.
"The whole mission of protecting children is really different than preventing food stamp fraud or Social Security fraud or Medicare fraud,’’ LaWall said.
The call for a probe comes in the wake of recent cases of child abuse in which CPS had been called beforehand.
In June, a 7-year-old child whose family had been under CPS inquiry was found locked in a closet and malnourished in Phoenix. Last week a 2 1 /2-year-old boy who also had come to the attention of CPS died in Mesa.
And Saturday, Phoenix police found 5-year-old twins who had been caged in their parents’ house, two years after CPS had received a report of neglect but never investigated.
"We’ve been arguing for reform but all we ever do is get promises,’’ Romley said. "And promises never seem to be kept.’’
He said a grand jury inquiry into CPS — and a public report of its findings — may be able to force the change.
Tracy Wareing, who advises Gov. Janet Napolitano on issues of services to children, said CPS will cooperate. But Wareing said Napolitano has her own plans to revamp the agency — plans that won’t be revealed until next month.
Wareing said Napolitano has been studying the recommendations of a special commission that in June urged redefining the role of CPS to primarily protect children rather than keep a family united. That report also contained suggestions for better investigating reports of abuse and neglect.
LaWall suggested that CPS be decentralized, with offices in each county and community independent of the central office in Phoenix. Napolitano also has said CPS is underfunded, with too few caseworkers handling too many cases. But Romley said he’s not ready to hand the agency more cash.
"You’ve got to make sure you have a sound system before you throw money at it,’’ he said. "Otherwise you just keep doing the same thing, just in a bigger context.’’
Romley has some experience using grand juries to investigate state agencies. Six years ago, a panel convened at Romley’s request to investigate the Department of Juvenile Corrections found "very disturbing conduct and circumstances which we believe put the safety of the public at risk,’’ including releasing some youths too soon, two of whom committed new crimes.
That report became one of the factors that resulted in then-Gov. Jane Hull forcing out Eugene Moore as the agency’s director.