PHOENIX – The state's top police agency is ready to investigate how 6,000 reports of child abuse over four years fell through the cracks.
Bart Graves, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, said Monday that four or five investigators are being assigned to a full-time inquiry of Child Protective Services. He said the main focus of the probe, ordered by Gov. Jan Brewer, is figuring out what went wrong.
But less clear is whether DPS will try to figure out exactly who is responsible for what became a policy at the agency of ignoring state laws which require all complaints to be investigated. And, for the moment, no one is looking at whether a crime has been committed.
“If we get to that point, either another law enforcement agency will be asked to conduct that part of it, or another unit within DPS,” Graves told Capitol Media Services. He said the focus now is helping CPS make improvements in its complaint handling process.
That decision not to focus on criminal issues is apparently what Brewer wants, at least for the time being.
“We're not going to get ahead of the DPS review,” said gubernatorial press aide Andrew Wilder. “The governor has stated, and she believes, it is important to let that (administrative review) happen first.”
The DPS inquiry comes as Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter was supposed to release his plan by close of business Monday for catching up with those 6,000 complaints that were never investigated.
He did not meet that deadline, which annoyed Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, who chairs a special legislative oversight panel. She said Carter and his staff had “the entire weekend” to draw up a time line for what steps the agency intends to take.
“It's really indicative of what the oversight committee members are dealing with,” she said on a Monday night public affairs news show on KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate.
“We ask for information and oftentimes it's woefully lacking,” Barto said. “It's indicative there are systemic problems throughout.”
On Thursday Carter disclosed that an independent investigative arm within CPS had found there had been 6,000 complaints of child abuse that had been marked “NI” – as in not for investigation. The practice, which began slowly in 2009, accelerated to the point of becoming a de facto policy where about one complaint out of every 12 made this year had been shunted off into the NI category.
The practice was discovered by Greg McKay, a Phoenix Police Department investigator on loan to CPS to head that Office of Child Welfare Investigations. He said a review of the most recent 3,000 uninvestigated complaints found 23 where there was evidence of criminal conduct and 10 where the allegations that were reported – and ignored at the time – were so alarming as to send an investigator out now.
They also found 125 instances where, after the first report was ignored, there was a second complaint of abuse.
McKay said, though, there was no evidence any child had died.
Brewer, who said she had been caught unaware, ordered Carter to come up with a plan to clean up the backlog.
“What she wants – what everybody wants – is to investigate every case, no exceptions,” Wilder said. “We've got to make sure that every child is safe and every case is reviewed.”
But Wilder said she also ordered the DPS to take a closer look “to see how this inexcusable failure occurred.”
“It's an administrative review,” he said. “It's not a criminal investigation right now.”
Graves said the heart of the inquiry will be on figuring out what went wrong and helping CPS come up with practices to prevent a repeat.
“What we've been asked to do is review how they've been doing this and see what that shows us,” he said, saying the main focus, he said, is “what could have been done better.”
Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, said something more is needed.
“There needs to be a determination of how the policy came around and how it was implemented,” said McCune Davis, the ranking Democrat on a special legislative oversight committee.
“And then you refer it to a prosecutor who make a decision as to whether it meets the standard for criminal prosecution,” she continued. “It's not a one-step process.”
If there eventually is a criminal probe, it could end up being handled by Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who also serves on that special legislative oversight panel.
Montgomery told Capitol Media Services it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment on whether there was any criminal intent by those who decided to ignore those 6,000 cases. He said all the information he has at this point comes from what was disclosed at a committee hearing on Thursday.
Still to be decided is whether Carter, hired by Brewer in early 2011, will remain at DES.
“That remains to be seen,” said Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, who chairs the legislative panel. “Somebody must be held responsible,” though she isn't sure it is Carter.
But McCune Davis said she's seen and heard enough.
“I'm ready for him to go,” she said.
Montgomery said that, at the very least, any review by DPS should result in new procedures at CPS “to ensure that no one can even negligently fail to follow the statute going forward.”
He said that might take the form of some new quality assurance process to monitor what happens after complaints come in. Montgomery said that might include a regularly scheduled process which compares the number of complaints into the CPS hotline with the number of cases opened and the number of proper dispositions “to ensure that you don't wind up with X number of cases where nothing's happened.”