Gov. Jan Brewer on Monday announced plans to create a team to oversee investigation of some 6,100 reports of child abuse or neglect that Child Protective Services set aside without investigating.
The move caps several weeks of mounting political furor about the failure to investigate reports in the face of heavy CPS caseloads and a rise in reports, including here in Rim Country.
Gov. Brewer said the Child Advocate Response Examination Team (CARE Team) will probe the cases classified as “not investigated” by the overwhelmed agency.
“Failure to investigate even one, let alone thousands, of cases of potential child abuse is absolutely inexcusable and undermines people’s confidence in the system that is charged with protecting the welfare of Arizona’s children. Every case must be investigated, period.”
Arizona CPS workers struggle with caseloads 77 percent above the national standard. The Legislature cut CPS funding during the budget crisis and has been slow to restore funding, despite a rise in cases.
Former Rim Country Child Protective Services workers who asked not to be named said that the local office remains undermanned and overwhelmed. Investigators cannot get to all the cases and when they do, they often must conduct cursory investigations to keep up with the caseload.
Moreover, Gila County continues to suffer from a severe shortage of foster families, who can take a child removed from the home because of abuse or neglect. As a result, local CPS caseworkers often have nowhere to place a child. Often, they have to rely on relatives or send children out of the county for placement, disrupting their schooling and adding to the chaos in their lives.
One recent abuse case in Payson illustrated the problems faced by overwhelmed caseworkers, who often investigate escalating cases of abuse and neglect without taking action.
In one case, a Payson woman with a drug problem neglected and abused her daughter for more than 18 months, as police reports and CPS investigations mounted. Police ultimately removed the child when they discovered her covered with cigarette burns living in a filthy home, piled with rotting food and dirty clothes. The woman had a history of meth use and police had investigated her for various offenses at least 11 times in 18 months. CPS had responded to six previous reports without taking action.
In another case, severe neglect prompted CPS to remove a girl from the home of Gisela woman — but they left a 14-year-old boy in the home, apparently without inspections or follow-up. Some time later deputies arrived to serve a warrant on the mother for an unrelated incident. They discovered the 14-year-old boy alone in the home covered in spider bites and sores. The home was covered in feces and rotting food and had no water or electricity.
These cases illustrate the dismaying level of abuse and neglect necessary to trigger CPS action.
Gov. Brewer, who pushed the Legislature to add CPS workers to the budget, said the newly created CARE Team will include an oversight group from outside CPS, including state lawmakers, prosecutors, child care advocates and other law enforcement agencies.
“In creating the independent CARE Team I seek to ensure that there is a thorough, transparent and independent oversight of the investigation into each of these neglected cases,” said Brewer.
Fred DuVal, the leading Democratic contender for the nomination to run for governor next year, called the reports of uninvestigated cases “jarring, frustrating, and most of all unacceptable. As a parent, I’m furious.” He called on the state to call a special session to provide enough money for CPS to deal with its “exploding” caseload.
Gov. Brewer vowed to review the dismissed cases within the next two months and to hold CPS accountable for obeying the law and investigating all cases. She said a lack of resources is no excuse.
The 6,100 cases set aside without investigation since 2009 are in addition to a backlog of some 10,000 cases CPS investigators haven’t yet had time to get to. The CPS rules require an investigation within 60 days of receiving the report, but the 10,000 cases have all been on the waiting list for more than two months each.
An initial review concluded that 125 children had suffered additional abuse after the initial, uninvestigated report. However, the review has so far uncovered no deaths.
The revelation was triggered when several police agencies called CPS to follow up on reports police had previously made about suspected cases of abuse and neglect. Top CPS officials reviewed a selection of cases and discovered that the agency often triages initial reports — investigating those that sound the most serious, but simply setting aside as NI (not investigated) about one in 12 reports, in apparent violation of a state law requiring CPS to investigate all reports.
Department of Economic Services Director Clarence Carter last week promised to investigate the 6,100 cases by the end of January. The agency hopes to complete a first screen of the cases. The Department of Public Safety has also set up a team of investigators to help wade through the cases.
DES released a status report this week which indicated that of the 2,910 uninvestigated cases sampled, 1,789 proved substantial enough to refer to caseworkers. That included 23 cases involving likely criminal conduct.
When CPS does investigate a case, investigators classified most reports as “unsubstantiated.” The agency gets about 3,650 calls a month on its hotline to report cases of abuse or neglect.
The state Legislature froze or reduced the number of caseworkers during the recent budget crisis. Back in January, Brewer won emergency budget authority to add 50 new caseworkers for the last fiscal year. She also won approval to add 150 more caseworkers in the current fiscal year.
The number of abuse and neglect cases deemed worthy of investigation has risen 15 percent in the past five years. Meanwhile, the number of children in foster care or other out-of-home care has risen from 9,000 to 15,000.
In that same period, the number of CPS workers has declined. The agency also suffers from the estimated 20 percent annual turnover rate among the staff.
The DES director has asked for an additional 350 CPS caseworkers for the fiscal year that starts in June of 2014.
RECENT RIM COUNTRY CHILD ABUSE CASES
Many reports to CPS
In an 18-month period a Payson woman’s abuse and neglect of her child resulted in 11 police reports and six Child Protective Services reports, but nothing happened until another parent made a report to the school after hearing an account of the abuse from a friend of the child. This time when police investigated they arrested the 30-year-old mother after they found the child covered with cigarette burns.
The mother initially insisted her daughter had bug bites and scratches from playing at school. However, when police searched the home they found it filthy, with piles of dirty clothes everywhere, filth in the kitchen and an open box of prescription pain pills within easy reach of the child.
Previous police reports involved driving under the influence, domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse, shoplifting and child neglect. The mother also had several shoplifting convictions.
A Gisela woman pleaded guilty to child abuse charges when deputies found a “horrific” case of neglect. The woman and her 14-year-old son lived in a house covered “wall-to-wall in dog feces, clothes, rotten food, just covered in black,” according to police reports. Deputies arrived at the home to serve the woman with a warrant in another case and found the boy alone, covered in marks and spider bites. Deputies noted a stench of rotting food and feces in the home, which had no running water or electricity.
Her son reportedly had no way to call his mother when deputies arrived and no way to heat the home.
Child Protective Services had already removed the woman’s daughter from the home, but not the son. The woman also had convictions for possession of drug paraphernalia, methamphetamine and DUI in that case.
Molested neighborhood children
The 28-year-old Mesa del Caballo man recently received a 15-year prison term after pleading guilty to charges he molested children in the neighborhood.
The sheriff’s department investigated after the father of one of the victims made a report. Investigators soon discovered four other teenage victims, but the man agreed to a plea bargain involving only three of the victims.