A new flurry of revelations is now swirling around the scandal-ridden Child Protective Services, including the Legislature’s balk on reforms, a spate of high-level firings, a critical investigation and an inexorable rise in the backlog of uninvestigated cases.
The parade of disturbing developments started with the adjournment of the state Legislature last week without any substantial action on Gov. Jan Brewer’s top legislative priority, the reform of CPS.
Last year she reacted to news that the agency had classified 6,500 case of abuse and neglect as “not investigated” in a desperate effort to reduce a backlog of reports that had grown to 10,000.
It’s unknown whether any of the cases involved Rim Country children, since the CPS system remains shrouded in secrecy. The system protects the confidentiality of children, families and people who report suspected abuse and neglect — which means even after cases go to court few details are available to the public — or even other people involved in the cases.
For instance, one Rim Country child was the subject of repeated reports of abuse and neglect from the day of her birth to her death in a car crash on Highway 87 as her father fled from police with his daughter in the back seat without a seat belt.
Gasoa Balas had custody of his daughter, Calandra, despite repeated reports of neglect and abuse at the time of her death. A year before her death, police charged him with domestic violence after he brutally beat his girlfriend after she objected to the way he was disciplining Calandra. Gasoa pinned the woman down, cut off her hair with scissors and stuffed the hair into her mouth. Despite the assault, the little girl remained in his custody. She had been removed from his custody several times in the past and placed with her grandmother or foster parents, but caseworkers always recommended the return of the girl to her father.
The Roundup six months ago requested all the reports from CPS concerning Calandra. The initial response to the request listed about a dozen reports of abuse and neglect, but blacked out most of the details except in the final reports relating to her death in the car accident as her father fled the scene of an alleged sexual assault.
The furor over the lack of follow through and investigation suggests that the long, tragic series of reports concerning Calandra may have been typical of an overwhelmed, understaffed agency with caseloads far above the national standard. Although the agency had routinely reported in budget reports that it didn’t have the staff to investigate a rising tide of cases, the governor and lawmakers last year reacted with anger to the revelations.
Gov. Brewer split the agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect out of the Department of Economic Security. She also asked for an extra $36 million to hire enough caseworkers and investigators to bring the agency up to national standards.
After months of discussion and debate, the Legislature adjourned after including little of the new money the governor requested in the $9.3 billion state general fund budget.
In the meantime, the number of backlogged cases awaiting investigation has grown to 12,000 and the number of children in foster care or other out-of-home placements has soared. That has worsened an already serious shortage of foster parents, partly because of a relatively low state reimbursement rate.
The Legislature did adopt language that promised to address the CPS crisis eventually. Meanwhile, Gov. Brewer says she will call a special session of the Legislature in July to deal with the need for reform — including more investigators.
Last week the Department of Public Safety completed an investigation of the decisions that led to setting aside the 6,500 reports of abuse and neglect. The report documented a process of handling cases that was poorly documented, poorly operated and lacking in checks and balances.
Director of Child Safety and Family Services Director Charles Flanagan promptly fired five senior CPS supervisors who had come up with the plan to reduce the backlog by putting so many cases in the “not investigated” category.
For years, the number of CPS caseworkers and investigators has lagged behind the steadily increasing number of cases. Low pay and stressful conditions has led to turnover rates among CPS workers approaching 40 percent annually — figures regularly reported to the Legislature and the governor.
Gov. Brewer responded to the release of the DPS report by saying, “from the moment I first learned of this unacceptable and unlawful practice, I have insisted that there be a full and thorough understanding of how and why it occurred, so we could ensure that it never happens again in Arizona. The DPS report is comprehensive. One thing is perfectly clear: it is vital that our state must continue the urgent effort to statutorily establish and new, standalone child protection agency whose core focus is safeguarding Arizona’s abused and neglected children. We must breakdown the levels of bureaucracy, change the culture that allowed this unconscionable practice to be implemented behind the scenes.”
Ironically, the agency now has more uninvestigated cases than when the now-fired supervisors initiated the new category.
They reportedly set aside cases that seemed hard to substantiate or involving lower priority allegations of abuse and neglect to make it possible for the few investigators to get to reports that sounded more serious. At the time, they hoped to whittle down a backlog of 10,000 cases, to focus on the most serious. The backlog has grown to 12,000 uninvestigated cases. They’re still not investigated, but they haven’t been labeled as such.