Task force recommends special CPS unit for abuse crimes - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Task force recommends special CPS unit for abuse crimes

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Posted: Friday, December 30, 2011 5:20 pm | Updated: 12:05 pm, Tue Jan 3, 2012.

PHOENIX – A task force is recommending formation of a special unit within Child Protective Services to investigate cases of abuse where crimes may have been committed.

The report, released Friday, comes in the wake of the high profile deaths of several youngsters who had been in the CPS system. Gov. Jan Brewer, who chose the members, said she wanted a top to bottom review of the process.

Clarence Carter, director of the Department of Economic Security, said one clear realization is that the existing system focuses on the child. But he said that, when criminal conduct is involved, there needs to be a broader -- and dual -- focus.

"You need to have the orientation of a child welfare professional,'' he said.

"But that needs to be married with the orientation of a law enforcement specialist,'' Carter continued. "Because there are two different objectives that have to be served: The protection and the well being of the child, along with the preservation of the family to the degree that's possible, along with the proper identification and adjudication of the criminal conduct allegation.''

Other key recommendations include:

- Crafting "clear and usable definitions'' of child abuse and neglect to make it easier to identify cases of criminal conduct;

- Allowing school officials and child welfare workers to share more information with each other;

- Providing greater training for CPS employees, particularly those who staff the hotline, to be able to correctly identify the priority of complaints.

Task force members also want more "transparency'' in how CPS operates. That includes a new statutory mandate that establishes a presumption that agency records are open to the public while maintaining the legal requirement for confidentiality.

Carter, who co-chaired the panel, acknowledged that has not been the case.

"DES has to sharpen its ability and its willingness to share as much information as does not compromise privacy,'' he said. "And I think, as an organization, we have historically erred on the lesser side.''

One specific change within the area of public disclosure stems directly from an incident earlier this year of what Chandler police said was a "near-death episode'' of a 4-month-old girl earlier this year due to "injuries (that) were non-accidental trauma.'' That occurred while the girl was placed in the care of a woman by CPS.

Arizona law requires CPS to make public information in cases of child abuse, abandonment or neglect that resulted in a fatality or a near fatality. But the agency turned down public records requests for this report.

Carter said the problem is that current law requires that the agency's "medical professional of record'' determine what is a "near fatality,'' something that occurs long after the initial incident. And in this case, he said, once that doctor determined this case did not fit that definition he could not release any information.

"But there were other medical professionals who said otherwise,'' Carter acknowledged. The proposed change would clarify that it is the treating physician who makes that determination, not any subsequent medical review.

Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said his boss had just received the report and had no comment. More to the point, he said Brewer is not going to commit herself now to recommending any of the proposals to the Legislature or even seeking the necessary funding in the budget request she will make to lawmakers in two weeks.

Carter said he is still coming up with estimates of the cost of various elements in the package.

Some changes, however, do not require legislation.

One focus for Carter involves the hotline which becomes the beginning point for most investigations started by CPS.

He wants to use some of the new investigators with law enforcement experience to review the calls coming in to determine whether they are being properly classified. That is important because complaints are ranked on a 1 to 4 scale based on whether the person taking the call believes immediate attention is necessary.

"A call may get coded at a 3, which is low in priority,'' Carter said. "And when we get somebody out there, they review the circumstances and it really should have been a 1.''

He said the investigators, working with that information, will then revamp the training "to ensure that we are making better determinations on how we are coding our cases.''

One area that did not get a great deal of attention in the report is how to help prevent child abuse in the first place. But Carter said his agency already is altering its policies to address shortcomings in that area.

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