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Arizona official promises probe of abuse cases

By Bob Christie

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 25 2013 1:43 p.m. MST

PHOENIX — A plan to respond to 6,000 child abuse reports that Arizona failed to investigate in recent years was expected to be released on Monday as Gov. Jan Brewer continued to support the official in charge of the agency that let the cases languish.

Department of Economic Director Clarence 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.

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 on Thursday. 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.

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."

AP writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report.

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