Plan to deal with botched Arizona abuse cases late

BOB CHRISTIE
In this Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 photo, Clarence Carter, director of Arizona's Child Protective Services (CPS), shares what Gov. Jan Brewer's reaction was when he told her that CPS missed investigating 6,000 child abuse cases, during a discussion with the Arizona Child Protective Services (CPS) oversight committee, in Phoenix. The revelation that about 6,000 cases of suspected child abuse reported to the state's CPS hotline were never investigated has cast a disturbing spotlight on a state department in disarray as officials call for investigations and accountability. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Pat Shannahan)

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona officials missed their self-imposed deadline Monday to publicly release a plan to respond to 6,000 child abuse reports that weren't investigated, as Gov. Jan Brewer's staff huddled late into the night to tweak the proposal from child welfare officials.

The missed deadline came after a day of assurances from the Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter's staff that the plan he promised last week would be released by "the close of business."

Carter told a legislative oversight committee last week that he would deliver the plan to address the botched cases.

Carter has identified a number of Child Protective Services staffers who will be assigned to investigate the cases, department spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said. An exact number of staffers has not been determined, but Brewer has approved using overtime for the urgent job.

So far, authorities re-examining the cases have identified at least 125 in which children were later alleged to have been abused. No deaths have been connected to the lapses.

State Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, who co-chairs the Legislature's Child Protective Services oversight committee, said Monday evening the proposal had been sent to Brewer. Brophy McGee said she was told she might still get the plan Monday night after the governor's staff reviews it.

The delay is another embarrassment for Carter, who promised the plan to the legislative committee during a hearing last week. Some Democrats have called on him to resign, but Brewer, a Republican, is standing by him — for now.

"Once we know what happened, then accountability will take place," Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder said.

Instead, Brewer's staff was apparently reworking the plan late into the night.

Child advocates say the debacle in Arizona reflected a common problem nationwide as child protective agencies are burdened with high case loads, lack of funding and dismal resources that force social workers to prioritize calls based on the most egregious reports.

Still, the reports need an initial review to determine whether they are worthy of investigation, said Michael Petit, president of the advocacy group Every Child Matters and former commissioner of Maine's Human Services Department, which oversees child protective services.

"They can't just park them and say we're really busy and put them aside," Petit said Monday.

In Arizona, Carter revealed the problems last week and was grilled by members of the Legislature's Child Protective Services oversight committee Thursday.

Brewer added 200 new CPS positions in her budget this year to help the agency deal with skyrocketing case loads.

Meanwhile, state police are reviewing how the mistakes occurred. A captain, sergeant and four detectives will have their caseloads reassigned and focus only on the CPS investigation.

The investigation is designed to determine who authorized the cases to be designated as "not investigated" and to review the department's policies. It is administrative in nature, and any findings of potential criminal actions would be handled by another team or agency, Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said.

State law requires that reports phoned into a child abuse hotline be investigated. Yet beginning in November 2009, some cases were closed before being sent to a field office for investigation by a team of specialists trying to clear a backlog, Graves said.

The practice was suspended, briefly renewed the next year, and suspended again.

However, beginning about 20 months ago, a new team designed to help the agency overcome an ongoing backlog revived the practice. More than 5,000 of the 6,000 cases that were not investigated happened since that time.

Law enforcement agents assigned to the agency's child welfare investigations unit discovered the closed cases in recent weeks.

Carter has said cases were pulled before they reached field investigators based on a review by a special team whose goal was to focus field investigators on the most serious cases.

Petit suggested the agency just had too many cases to handle.

"When you've got 6,000 backlogged cases, that's not a function of a lot of people goofing off," he said.

However, Petit added, the problem won't be easy to address without a huge increase in staff at the Arizona agency, and the issue will be compounded as calls keep coming.

"If they're going to do a retroactive on these 6,000 cases," he said, "they're going to have the same problems six months later if they don't address the problem that led to this in the first place."

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Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report.