PHOENIX — A plan by the Department of Economic Security to deal with a backlog of 6,000 uninvestigated child abuse complaints is getting panned by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said Tuesday the three-page work plan crafted by DES Director Clarence Carter “lacks in detail and falls short on addressing the accountability that the public and legislators are demanding.” Barto, who co-chairs a special committee with oversight over Child Protective Services, said in a prepared statement she is not convinced that the agency can really do justice to all the reports.
That's also the assessment of Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, the ranking House minority member on the oversight panel.
“It is still unclear how DES and CPS are realistically going to finish this job,” she said. And McCune Davis said Carter has not provided adequate information about who is investigating the cases and how they will be handled.
“This response leaves too many questions unanswered,” she said.
The reactions come less than 24 hours after Carter released a plan saying his agency can finish investigating the more than 6,000 overlooked investigations, which date back four years, in just two months. DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said all that can be done without falling behind on new complaints which are coming in at the rate of 2,500 a month.
McCune Davis said that makes no sense, especially since CPS already has a backlog of about 10,000 cases — cases listed as “inactive,” meaning there has been no action taken on them for at least two months.
Carter disclosed last week that a newly created Office of Child Welfare Investigations discovered that some abuse complaints through the CPS hotline had not been forwarded to field offices. Instead, member of a special SWAT team had simply marked them as not for investigation.
While the practice started slowly it accelerated to the point where 3,000 complaints — about one out of every 12 this year — were closed without investigation. All told there were 6,000 cases sidelined over four years.
Gov. Jan Brewer said she was shocked by the findings and ordered Carter to come up with a plan to take a look at each of these.
Carter said in his plan that his staff already has culled through about half of those. While about 1,800 were referred for further investigation, another 879 were identified as potentially eligible for an expedited “alternative investigation,” a process that would allow them to be closed without a caseworker going to the house.
Barto questioned how thorough CPS is being, saying staffers went through those first nearly 3,000 complaints in only three days.
“How thorough could those assessments be?” she asked.
Barto noted that Carter has promised to screen the remaining half by the end of the day this coming Monday. And he has said every case will be resolved by the end of January.
“I am not confident that the agency can properly review each and every case in the short timeframe outlined and be assured that the issue is resolved once and for all,” Barto said.
Peterson said that Carter's plan for dealing with the backlog will work — and that it will not result in new abuse reports falling by the wayside
She said Carter already has identified 257 staffers who are not working now as active caseworkers who can be tapped to dig into the 6,000 cases without having to juggle existing cases. These include supervisors, central office staff and investigators within the Office of Child Welfare Investigations.
Gubernatorial press aide Andrew Wilder said his boss is confident that each of these previously ignored complaints will be dealt with properly.
But the effort to classify some of these as suitable for an “alternative investigation” means that not every child who was reported as abused will be seen by a caseworker.
Peterson said rules which have been in place since 1999 create a special procedure when a report has been filed by someone like a police officer, teacher or doctor. In those cases, a supervisor can instead make a phone call to determine whether the youngsters are now are current victims of mistreatment or at risk of imminent harm.
If not, then Peterson said the case can be closed after follow-up verification with the source who reported the original abuse.
Barto said she and other members of the oversight committee want more details from CPS of exactly how the process works — and that closing cases this way does not simply add to the existing backlog.
Several Democrat lawmakers have called for a special legislative session to provide additional immediate funding for CPS to not only deal with the 6,000 ignored complaints but also address the backlog and get caseloads for caseworkers in more manageable range. But Wilder said Brewer does not believe that is necessary.
“There's money there, right now, to pay for the overtime, to pay for the after-hours, to attack this problem head-on,” he said. “There's a process in place to tackle the immediate task at hand, which is making sure that each one of those 6,000 cases are thoroughly investigated.”
And Wilder said lawmakers earlier this year provided $70 million for 200 additional staffers, including caseworkers, for the agency. Wilder said the call by Democrats for more money is a “predictable, tired solution.”
Anyway, he said, it makes no sense to immediately provide more money for CPS on a longer-range basis until the Department of Public Safety finishes its review of the agency's practices, including how the 6,000 cases got shuttled aside without anyone knowing and what needs to be done to prevent a repeat.