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Lawmakers criticize plan for clearing abuse cases

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BOB CHRISTIE | November 27, 2013 01:12 PM EST | AP

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PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona's child welfare workers will need to investigate thousands of abuse and neglect cases in just two months if they are to meet a goal set by their boss of clearing a backlog of uninvestigated reports from the past four years.

The ambitious plan outlined by Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter also promised to minimize the effect on caseworkers, who already are handling nearly double the number of cases deemed optimal for their work in Child Protective Services.

The backlogged investigations will be completed by more than 200 supervisors and managers — employees who don't currently handle cases, department spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said. In addition, 29 investigators with the agency's criminal unit and 22 office support staff will be involved.

However, key lawmakers said Tuesday the crisis response plan contains too few details to determine whether it will work, or whether it will rectify the underlying problem of an overloaded agency.

For one, it adds more work to the overburdened agency as it moves to deal with about 6,100 cases that were illegally closed without investigation in the past four years. Most of those came in the past 20 months, as a specialized unit at Child Protective Services sought to lighten the workload of social workers in the field by culling cases they determined didn't merit a response.

The agency hasn't said who made the decision to close the cases, and state police are conducting a non-criminal review.

The plan laid out by Carter showed just how badly those workers botched the job: A cursory review completed on 2,919 of the 6,110 child abuse or neglect reports phoned into a hotline found 1,797 that merited full investigations. Ten required an immediate response under CPS guidelines that stress child safety.

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.

A review of the remaining 3,191 cases should be done by Dec. 2. Investigations on all the cases that warrant it will be started or completed by Jan. 31.

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, a Republican who co-chairs the Legislature's Child Protective Services oversight committee, noted the plan calls for no additional workers or other resources.

"I just have a tremendous number of questions," she said Tuesday. "Who's leading the investigation?"

Her concerns were echoed by Democratic Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, who called the plan inadequate.

"It doesn't really tell us who is addressing the problem, it doesn't really tells us how they are addressing the problem, and it doesn't tell us how it fits in their larger work plan in regards to these other cases that haven't been worked," McCune Davis said.

The 6,100 neglected cases come on top of more than 10,000 being handled by the agency that haven't been investigated in the required 60 days, according to the oversight committee.

Carter learned of the ignored reports from his agency's new chief of child welfare investigations. Gregory McKay followed up on a case a police agency had inquired about, and found the special unit labeled many cases as not worthy of investigation.

Carter told Gov. Jan Brewer, who he said was incensed at the news. Brewer ordered Carter to reveal the matter publically, authorized overtime and said: "I do not want to see the lights off at CPS until this is done."

After briefing the media and reporting to the Legislature's oversight committee last week, Carter missed a self-imposed 5 p.m. Monday deadline to deliver the action plan. When the document finally was released at 10 p.m., it mentioned only in passing how already overworked staff could handle the backlog while still dealing with ongoing and new cases.

More importantly, it set another deadline that if not met, will bring added scrutiny to the agency, said Gordon C. James, who runs a Phoenix public relations firm that advises clients on crisis communications.

"Guaranteeing results, that just sets you up to fail again," James said.