Saying Child Protective Services has been “hiding or not disclosing” information, Gov. Jan Brewer on Monday a special panel of current and former legislators and outsiders to take a closer look at the agency.
Brewer said the panel will most immediately provide oversight for the ongoing screening and follow-up of the more than 6,500 reports of abuse over four years that were never investigated. But she also wants the group to do a deeper examination of how CPS operates – or does not – and give her a report.
Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, who will be a member of what's been dubbed the Child Advocate Response Examination team, called the moved long overdue.
“They will bring transparency to an agency that has been cloaked in secrecy, and integrity to a process that has been corrupt,” she said.
Brewer conceded the agency has been somewhat opaque in how it operates. She said some of that is legally necessary because of confidentiality rules.
“But I think that we must strive, moving forward now, with new reforms to see that there's a lot more transparency,” the governor said. “Cause when there isn't transparency, sometimes this is what we end up with.”
What Arizona ended up with were more than 6,500 reports of abuse to a Child Protective Services hotline since the beginning of 2009 that were sidelined before they ever reached a field office. Members of a special team simply marked them as “NI,” or not for investigation.
About half of these occurred just this year until the practice was unearthed by a special investigator placed into the department by Brewer and the Legislature.
But Brewer dismissed calls by some, including Children's Action Alliance, to fire Clarence Carter as director of the Department of Economic Security, the parent agency of CPS.
The governor said she believes Carter is doing a “fine job.” And she said Carter not only had nothing to do with creating the problem but was unaware of it until the special investigator found it.
Brewer does, however, want to know who made the decisions to allow cases to be marked NI, with indications that whoever was responsible will be punished.
“There has been a break in the command we will get to the bottom of this and somebody – people – will be held accountable,” she said.
“We need to know where all the bodies are buried, if you will, no pun intended,” the governor said. “We're not going to tolerate this.”
Carter, who stood behind Brewer during the announcement, said nothing at the event.
The new CARE team does not include anyone from Children's Action Alliance, which has perhaps been the most visible critic of CPS operations. Organization president Dana Wolfe Naimark, who had been among those calling for an outside probe, said she does not feel slighted and is pleased with the makeup of the team.
Naimark said overseeing how CPS deals with those 6,500 uninvestigated cases is only a first step. She said someone needs to take a deeper look into the agency's operation.
She pointed out that there are about 10,000 child abuse cases that are listed as “inactive,” meaning there has been no action taken on them in at least two months. And Naimark said 12,000 cases that were listed as open on June 30 were still uninvestigated as of the end of September, the most recent figures available.
“They should have been completed by then,” Naimark said.
Its parent organization, the Department of Economic Security, is doing its own review. And Brewer also directed the Department of Public Safety to take a look at exactly how CPS ended up with what became an informal – and illegal – practice of shunting cases off to the side without at least some further inquiry.
Scott Smith, the governor's chief of staff, conceded those still left critics of the agency unsatisfied.
“There were calls for an independent look on these cases,” Smith said. “We're responding to that.”
Brewer acknowledged that since taking office in 2009 she has made CPS a priority even as the agency has continued to be buffeted by reports of the deaths of children who were supposed to be watched by the agency.
But she brushed aside a question of why the public should be assured that this review – and any changes to the agency that come out of it – will finally fix the problems there. Instead, she responded about how child welfare agencies across the country all have problems.
“CPS has been faced with the daunting task of trying to protect children from bad parents,” Brewer said. “CPS has been charged with the job of doing what our families out there have failed to do, what our community has failed to do, what our churches have failed to do, what our courts have failed to do in some instances.”
The governor promised to have “eyes on each and every one” of the children in those 6,500 uninvestigated complaints.
What constitutes “eyes,” however, is a bit murkier.
Carter already has said some of the uninvestigated reports will be handled through an “alternative investigation.”
That applies to complaints that came in from someone mandated to report abuse, like a teacher, doctor or police officer. CPS rules allow caseworkers to close those with a phone call to the person who made the report if there is no evidence to that child or siblings are either current victims of maltreatment or are at “risk of imminent harm.”
Smith said it was the governor's assumption that in each of these missed cases there would be contact by a caseworker. He said the only exceptions might be for situations where a child has since turned 18.
Charles Flanagan, director of the Department of Juvenile Corrections and chair of this new task force, said he presumes the alternative investigation process will remain in place.
Brophy McGee, who has been a key critic of CPS, said she has been angry and fearful and heartbroken since learning about the cases that had never been given even a cursory investigation. But she also was careful to stress that the problems at the agency are not due to the caseworkers trying to keep up.
“Public outrage with the news of children suffering and dying is the norm,” she said. “But the public knows little to nothing of the good outcomes these front line workers make happen every day.”